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Royal New Zealand Air Force



While the preliminary operations against Japanese positions were being carried out, preparations for the landing at Empress Augusta Bay proceeded. After a period of training and rehearsal at Guadalcanal and in the New Hebrides, the troops were embarked in three divisions of transports, which joined up and proceeded northwards towards Bougainville so as to arrive off Cape Torokina at daylight on 1 November. The initial landing was made by the 3rd Marine Division, supported by detachments of other units.

Before the landing craft left the transports with the first wave of the assault, the beaches were well covered with fire from the supporting naval forces. This fire provoked no response from the Japanese positions and it appeared that nothing could be left alive on the shore. The bombardment was lifted from the beaches at 7.21 a.m., and immediately afterwards thirty-one TBFs from Munda bombed and strafed the area for five minutes. A minute later the first wave of landing craft hit the beach, four minutes ahead of schedule. Not until the boats were 50 yards off shore did the Japanese open fire, and then their shore batteries on Torokina Point went into action with deadly accuracy.

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The area of the landings extended from the north side of Cape Torokina, along the beaches some 12 miles up the coast. The Japanese opposition was strongest at the south end, where they had batteries and pillboxes at Cape Torokina itself, and at the north end of Puruata Island, a mile or so off shore. On the more northern beaches there was little opposition, but the natural conditions made landing difficult. The surf was bad and the beaches themselves were so narrow and so steep that the boats had great difficulty in approaching them. On the four northern beaches eighty-six boats were turned side on in the surf and stranded during the landing operations, and subsequent waves of troops and equipment had to be landed on the more southerly beaches. At the same time it became obvious that the most southerly landing point of all, on Cape Torokina, could not be held in face of the Japanese opposition and operations on this beach were also suspended. The resulting confusion delayed the landing of a certain amount of equipment, and four of the transports were not completely unloaded during the day. They withdrew with the rest of the task force at four o'clock in the afternoon and returned next day to complete unloading.

It was estimated that there were only about 300 Japanese altogether opposing the landing, but their resistance was stubborn and determined. About half of them were killed, and when it was obvious that the American troops had established themselves on shore the remainder withdrew inland. American losses in the landing were 70 killed and missing and 124 wounded.

In spite of the heavy attacks on Japanese airfields in the Bougainville area over the last two weeks it was expected that the enemy air force would make some attempt to interfere with the landings, and a fighter patrol of thirty-two planes was stationed over Empress Augusta Bay throughout the day. Controlled by the Fighter Director Group in USS Conway, the patrol was responsible for driving off a number of enemy planes which attempted to enter the area. During the day only two attacks succeeded in breaking through.

A patrol of eight aircraft of No. 18 Squadron, RNZAF, was on station early in the morning and the pilots saw the initial landing. Shortly before eight o'clock they were vectored on to a large formation of enemy aircraft which had been picked up by radar. Flight Lieutenant Balfour1 led his flight to a position 16,000 feet over Cape Torokina. A formation of 50 to 60 Zekes was then seen flying down the middle of the island towards Kahili. They were flying in three Vs in good formation and their steady direction

1 Sqn Ldr R. H. Balfour, DFC, DFC (US); Cheviot; born Waimate, 15 Apr 1917; stock agent.

page 208 suggested that they were not interested in, and possibly were not aware of, the landing in Empress Augusta Bay. The New Zealanders immediately attacked, and in the next few minutes shot down seven of them and probably destroyed another. One New Zealand aircraft, piloted by Flying Officer Lumsden,1 was damaged and landed on the water near Vella Lavella on the way home. He had been chased by two Zekes over the landing area, and was fired on by a United States destroyer which holed his aircraft. Then a Corsair fired on him, and shortly afterwards he was forced to ditch. He was later picked up by a barge, after nearly being machine-gunned by the crew, and returned to his unit two days later.

While the New Zealanders were fighting their own battle, another formation of Zekes was intercepted by a flight of American P38s, which shot down seven and probably destroyed three more with no loss to themselves. In the meantime all ships in the bay had got under way and were manoeuvring to avoid bombs. A dozen dive-bombers got through the fighter cover and attacked the ships, but one vessel only was slightly damaged by a near miss.

Another Japanese attack was made in the early afternoon, when bombs were dropped on the landing beach and near some of the ships without doing any damage. The Japanese were again engaged by American fighters, which shot down a number, but New Zealand patrols during the rest of the day did not make any further contacts.

On the night of 1–2 November the Japanese sent a force of cruisers and destroyers which they had gathered at Rabaul to attempt to destroy the American landing party at Torokina. Admiral Merrill's task force, which was the only cruiser force available in the area, was ordered to intercept the enemy and protect both the forces that had landed and the four transports which were returning to Empress Augusta Bay to complete their unloading in the morning. After a confused night battle lasting from just after midnight until shortly before daylight, the enemy force was defeated and withdrew in the direction of Rabaul. The American task force then returned south in an endeavour to reach the protection of friendly planes before aircraft from Rabaul could appear.

At eight o'clock in the morning a large group of enemy dive-bombers and bombers, covered by fighters, appeared over the ships, which fought back with a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Thanks to the evasive action taken by the ships and the concentration of fire, the Japanese bomb aimers were thoroughly rattled, and the only direct hits scored on the task force were from two

1 Flt Lt K. D. Lumsden; Nelson; born Waimate, 7 Sep 1921; draughtsman.

page 209 small bombs on a cruiser. The entire attack lasted less than a quarter of an hour and at the end of it the enemy reformed out of range and retired to Rabaul. By this time friendly planes were over the task force in hot pursuit of the enemy, and soon after Allied bombers began to search for the Japanese ships which had been crippled during the night. In this operation one flight of the RNZAF Wing took part, escorting American SBDs engaged in the search.