Operation Battleaxe (ii)

This was the Australian naval gunfire support for the land operations of Major General Alan H. Ramsayís Australian 5th Division and Major General Jack E. S. Stevensís Australian 6th Division round Wide Bay on New Britain island on the southern edge of the Gazelle peninsula’s south-eastern corner (November 1944).

The ships involved, under the command of Commander James C. Morrow, were the destroyers Vendetta and Swan, and the frigate Barcoo.

This occurred during the later stages of the New Britain campaign, which lasted from 'Backhander' on 26 December 1943 and the end of World War II in August 1945, and was designed to contain the significant Japanese forces concentrated in the area of Rabaul, the capital of New Britain on the island’s north coast, and the major Japanese base for the New Guinea and Solomon islands campaigns.

A generally crescent-shaped island lying to the north-east of the mainland of New Guinea, New Britain is about 370 miles (595 km) in length along its south-east coast, and between 20 and 70 miles (30 and 110 110 km) wide excluding the small Willaumez peninsula on the north-west coast. There were more than 100,000 Japanese military and civilian personnel on New Britain and New Ireland, a smaller island on a north-west/south-east alignment to the north of Rabaul. These Japanese forces were centred on General Hitoshi Imamura’s 8th Area Army, and included Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai’s 17th Division (11,429 men at the end of the war); Lieutenant General Sadaaki Kagesa’s 38th Division (13,108); 39th Independent Mixed Brigade (5,073); Major General Iwao Matsuda’s 65th Brigade (2,729) as the core of the 'Matsuda' Force with the 4th Shipping Command and elements of the 17th and 51st Divisions; 14th Regiment (2,444); 34th Regiment (1,879); 35th Regiment (1,967); and the rump of the 6th Air Division. The naval forces were concentrated under Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka’s South-Eastern Area Fleet, which controlled the remnants of Vice Admiral Baron Tomoshige Samejima’s 8th Fleet and Kusaka’s own 11th Air Fleet. The Japanese surrender was taken by Lieutenant General V. A. H. Sturdee, commander of the Australian 1st Army, on 6 September 1945.

By the end of the war, these Japanese forces had been bottled up around Rabaul and the surrounding Gazelle peninsula, where their primary concern was survival in the face of famine and disease rather than combat with the Allied forces. These latter were US and Australian units and formations with the considerable support of local elements, and never exceeded divisional strength in any one phase of the campaign, in which Major General William H. Rupertus’s 1st Marine Division was succeeded from 23 April 1944 by Major General Rapp Brush’s US 40th Division (108th, 160th and 185 Infantry), which was itself succeeded from 27 November 1944 by the Australian 5th Division (4th, 6th and 13th Brigades), which was wholly assembled on New Britain by February 1945.

The landing at Jacquinot Bay was an amphibious undertaking on 4 November 1944 in which the 14th/32nd Battalion and a company of the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion were transported by two transports under the escort of three Australian warships in the form of the destroyer Vendetta, frigate Barcoo and sloop Swan. The landing was unopposed, and after covering the landing force for two days the three warships proceeded north-east to Wide Bay, where they bombarded Japanese positions. The Australian motor launches ML-802 and ML-827 remained in the area with the landing craft of a company of the US Army’s 594th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment. There followed the Battle of Wide Bay in which Australian troops were landed on 10 March with the task of further isolating the Japanese forces on the Gazelle peninsula.