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Royal New Zealand Air Force

situation on bougainville, march 1944

situation on bougainville, march 1944

The Allied perimeter at Torokina at the beginning of March extended for about four miles along the coast of Empress Augusta Bay and ran inland from the beach to form a rough semicircle, with a maximum depth of approximately three miles from the sea. It enclosed an area of flat, jungle-covered land, much of which became swampy in wet weather, and was overlooked to the north and north-east by a series of low hills.

The Americans had developed three airstrips: the original Torokina fighter strip running parallel to the beach just to the east of Cape Torokina, and a fighter and a bomber strip at Piva in the north-western section of the area, two miles inland. A network of roads had been made and camps built to house the ground and air forces operating there. The main ground forces comprised the 14th Corps, US Army, which had replaced the Marines who had made the initial landing. Naval units comprised Acorn 13 and Acorn 36,1 the 36th and 77th Construction Battalions, and a number of fighter and light bomber squadrons. The RNZAF had Nos. 14 and 18 Fighter Squadrons, Nos. 2 and 4 Servicing Units, and No. 59 Radar Unit. Also in the area was 1 Battalion Fiji Infantry Regiment, employed on scouting duties.

Late in February the American intelligence service intercepted a code message to the Japanese commander in the South-West Pacific, ordering an attack on the perimeter on 7 March. According to the Japanese plan the perimeter was to be heavily bombed for two days and the land attack was to be assisted by 300 planes. The Allied forces were to be driven back to the beaches, where a naval attack would annihilate them. One of the factors which upset the plan was the absence by this time of any significant number of Japanese aircraft.

Confirmation of the proposed Japanese attack was brought in by Fijian and other patrols operating outside the perimeter, and this information was supplemented by the interrogation of prisoners of war and by air observation of enemy troop movements. During the

1 Acorn: United States naval aircraft maintenance organisation similar to an RNZAF servicing unit.

page 245 first week of March preparations were made for the defence of the perimeter.

The main line of defence was held by the 14th Corps. It consisted of a strip of cleared ground about 75 yards wide round the whole perimeter, guarded by barbed wire and land mines and covered by machine guns and mortars. Behind this was the second line of defence, held by Marine units in strong defensive positions. A third line was manned by American construction battalions, Acorn 13, the 68th American Fighter Squadron and the RNZAF.

The RNZAF personnel formed part of the Torokina Airfield Defence Force under the command of Lieutenant-Commander C. A. Bates, USN. The whole force, which was allotted specifically to the protection of the airstrip, consisted of two US Army, three US Navy and three RNZAF companies, with reserves. The New Zealand companies were commanded by Pilot Officer Angus,1 Flying Officer Molloy2 and Pilot Officer Bignall,3 and the reserve company by Flight Lieutenant Watson.4 Each company consisted of approximately 110 men divided into three platoons under the command of senior NCOs. The position allotted to them was about a mile from Torokina strip and commanded the junction of Piva Road and Marine Drive, the two main roads leading to it. A headquarters was set up in a jungle clearing slightly to the rear of the companies.

During the preparatory period the companies made themselves familiar with their positions, dug trenches and built machine-gun nests. Communications, transport, rations and medical services were organised on a combat basis. While the defensive preparations were being made the major task of servicing and despatching aircraft to operate over Rabaul, Kavieng, and Green Island went on unceasingly.

At six o'clock on the morning of 8 March, a day later than expected, the Japanese attack began with an artillery bombardment of the Allied positions. Torokina strip and the New Zealand camp area had been considered to be out of range of enemy fire, and a dozen or so pilots who were taking their morning shower were perturbed by a shell which landed only 20 yards away. Another shell landed just outside the mess tent, interrupting breakfast. Altogether about thirty shells landed in or near the RNZAF camp during the initial bombardment but they caused no serious casualties. The main weight of the fire fell on the intersection of Marine Drive and Corps Road, two of the main roadways inside the

1 Fg Off F. J. S. Angus; Auckland; born Auckland, 21 Mar 1914; salesman.

2 Flt Lt J. M. Molloy; Henderson; born Westport, 3 Nov 1918; clerk.

3 Fg Off E. D. B. Bignall; Lower Hutt; born London, 31 Jan 1917; advertising salesman.

4 Sqn Ldr R. B. Watson; RNZAF; born Christchurch, 17 Apr 1916; clerk.

page 246 perimeter, and on the Piva airstrips, where it destroyed or damaged a score of American aircraft and injured sixteen men. Torokina strip was not hit. The bombardment lasted for an hour, and when it was over the men paraded for their normal duties at the airstrip.

The shelling continued daily until 20 March, after which it decreased in intensity and by the end of the month had ceased altogether. Some shells fell on Torokina, but the main weight of the artillery attack was borne by the airstrips at Piva, which had at times to be closed. From 9 March onwards all fighters on Bougainville operated from Torokina under the control of Wing Commander Nicholls. As a safety measure they were dispersed at night to Green Island, Stirling and Ondonga, returning in the morning to Torokina for operations.

Enemy infantry attacked at three points round the perimeter on the 8th and by the following day had made a slight penetration into the American lines. Determined counter-attacks by the Americans, assisted by aircraft which bombed and strafed the Japanese lines, were successful and by the 11th the Japanese were pushed back with heavy casualties. They attacked again strongly on the 12th and 13th and made another small penetration, but again the Americans pushed them back. After that there was a week's lull in the ground fighting, but on the 23rd the Japanese launched what was to be their last major effort. Just before dawn in a heavy attack they penetrated the American lines on a narrow front to a depth of 300 yards, but savage fighting drove them back and by the afternoon the line was once again intact. Fierce fighting continued on the 24th and 25th, but by the 26th activity on the perimeter had decreased, and three days later the Japanese were so weakened by the losses they had sustained that they no longer caused any serious threat to the Allied positions.

Direct support of ground operations was given by squadrons of American SBDs and TBFs, which maintained patrols over the perimeter and bombed and strafed enemy troop concentrations and gun positions. Flying over one hundred sorties a day, they did much to reduce the weight of the enemy attack. Fighter-bombers were used to attack lines of communication between Torokina and the east and south of Bougainville.

On 22 March twelve aircraft of No. 14 Squadron, led by Nicholls, attacked a large concentration of enemy troops which had been reported by a prisoner of war near the Laruma River, at the eastern end of the perimeter. The aircraft were armed with 1000-pound bombs, which were all dropped in the target area. As the operation took place only six miles from Torokina airstrip, the men on the ground had an excellent view of the aircraft diving to attack and page 247 of the explosions. Four days later twelve aircraft of No. 19 Squadron, which had recently relieved No. 18, bombed Japanese pillboxes near Motupena at the southern end of Empress Augusta Bay. Incendiaries and high-explosive bombs were used, and several good fires were burning when the aircraft left the target.

In the same week New Zealand P40s, working with American P39s, attacked the main Japanese supply route from Buin in southern Bougainville and destroyed two bridges. They also bombed Ibu, on the trail to Numa Numa, one of the main enemy bases on the east coast, to which the Japanese retreated after the failure of their counter-offensive.