Operation Cartwheel

This was the US operational version of the final ‘Elkton III’ plan whereby the forces of Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific Area and General Douglas MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area commands were to co-operate in a double advance to isolate General Hitoshi Imamura’s 8th Area Army, of General (Field Marshal from June 1943) Count Hisaichi Terauchi’s Southern Expeditionary Army Group, on the islands of New Britain and New Ireland in the Bismarck islands group (26 April 1943/20 March 1944).

The islands of the Bismarck archipelago are located to the north-east of New Guinea and the north-west of the Solomon islands group, with which they share a very difficult jungle-clad terrain and rain-swept tropical climate. German settlers began to reached the area in the 1860s and Germany annexed the islands in 1885. Australian troops expelled the Germans in September 1914 in the early stages of World War I, and Australia received a mandate over the islands from the League of Nations on 9 May 1921.

The islands' land area is about 19,200 sq miles (49730 km²), and the largest of the islands is New Britain with an area of 14,100 sq miles (36520 km²). There are superb anchorages at Seeadler Harbour in the Admiralty islands group to the north-west of New Ireland and at Rabaul on the north-eastern tip of New Britain, but only the latter had been developed to any extent by the end of 1941, with modest docking facilities and two airfields. There is also an anchorage at Kavieng on the north-western tip of New Ireland, which has an area of 2,860 sq miles (7405 km²), but it was overshadowed by Rabaul throughout the war. Before the advent of the Pacific War, the islands' chief economic strength was the export of copra, timber and turtle shells.

As well as being covered with jungle, the islands are very rugged, and include several active or dormant volcanoes. The anchorage at Rabaul is a flooded caldera, and in World War II resurgent domes in the harbour area periodically gave off quantities of steam and ash, and sulphurous fumes adversely affected the habitability of the many underground fortifications which the Japanese constructed during the war.

The islands receive their heaviest rains during the north-west monsoon of October to April, but there is no real dry season. Tropical diseases such as malaria were common, particularly on New Britain.

The native population consisted of Melanesian tribesmen, with some Polynesian blood, who had largely converted to Christianity by 1942. Many members of the local population were contracted as labourers, for the immigration of Asian labourers was prohibited.

The Bismarck islands group was scheduled for occupation in the earliest iterations of the Imperial Japanese navy’s plans for the 'Centrifugal Offensive' to become part of the outer defence line against the expected US offensive drive to the west as outlined on the 'Orange' interwar colour-coded war plan.

Rabaul was very clearly the strategic key to the Bismarck islands group. The Japanese recognised the value of the harbour, and seized it in 'R' with forces from Truk atoll early in the Pacific War. Air attacks began on 4 January 1942 and elements of Major General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment began to land on 23 January, rapidly driving back the 1,390 men of the defending Australian 22nd Battalion ('Lark' Force) and taking the town and airfields. With Rabaul secured, the Japanese occupied the remainder of the Bismarck islands group without difficulty. Kavieng was taken on 'O' (i) on the same day as Rabaul, Bougainville was occupied on 30/31 March in 'Bo', and the Admiralty islands group was occupied on 8 April.

The Allied strategy in the South-West Pacific Area was initially focused on the recapture of Rabaul. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander-in-chief of the SWPA, envisaged the 'Cartwheel' two-prong counter-offensive in which one prong would drive to the north-west from the Solomon islands group and the other to the north across the Dampier and Vitiaz Straits from New Guinea to New Britain. These operations began with the operations to secure Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands group in 'Watchtower' starting on 7 August 1942, and to clear the north-eastern coast of New Guinea around Buna starting on 19 November 1942. Both undertakings proved to be far more difficult than had been foreseen, becoming major battles of attrition which lasted for months: the Buna area was not secured until 22 January 1943 and Guadalcanal until 9 February 1943.

At at the Pacific Military Conference of March 1943 in Washington, DC, MacArthur’s representative, Major General Richard K. Sutherland, the SWPA chief-of-staff, presented the 'Elkton III' revised plan for the recapture of Rabaul, a plan which envisaged the seizure of the Huon peninsula in New Guinea and Munda on New Georgia, followed by the seizure of points in western New Britain and Bougainville. The Allies could then take Kavieng, if necessary, before the final assault on Rabaul. The strength of the Japanese forces in the area was estimated at some 85,000 men and 383 aircraft, with another 11,000 men, 250 aircraft, and the main strength of the Combined Fleet available for immediate reinforcement. In the longer term, the Japanese could dispatch another 615 aircraft and something in the order of 10 to 15 divisions into the area if shipping could be found. Japanese records show that this estimate was fairly accurate, and that the shipping available was about 300,000 tons to which perhaps another 100,000 tons could be added. MacArthur demanded another five divisions and a tripling of the air strength in the theatre in order to carry out his plan.

The Washington planners rejected any reinforcements beyond two or three divisions and a small number of aircraft, and the plan had therefore to be trimmed. The final directive, which was issued on 28 March 1943, was based on Allied advances as far as the Huon peninsula, the western end of New Britain and Bougainville by the end of 1943. Overall command was to be vested in MacArthur, with whom Admiral William F. Halsey, commander-in-chief of the South Pacific Area, would co-operate. Fortunately, there was enough mutual respect between the two men to make the plan work.

Controlled directly by MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area command, the US forces for this undertaking were grouped as ‘Alamo’ Force under the command of of Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger, whose US 6th Army constituted the major strength of ‘Alamo’ Force. The southern portion of ‘Cartwheel’ involved an advance along the coast of New Guinea as far to the west as Madang against the forces of Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi’s 18th Army, and the northern portion an advance to the north-west along the chain of the Solomon islands group against the forces of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army (operational command passing from the South Pacific Area to the South-West Pacific Area between Choiseul and Bougainville islands) before a wide outflanking descent was made on the Admiralty islands and St Matthias islands, to the north-west of Kavieng in New Britain, during March 1944 to seal the 8th Area Army’s last possible route of escape or reinforcement.

The Japanese forces thus isolated were to be left essentially undisturbed ‘to wither on the vine’ for the rest of the war.

Strategic direction of ‘Cartwheel’ was entrusted to MacArthur as the Supreme Allied Commander in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA), and involved primarily US and Australian forces as well as smaller Dutch and New Zealand elements. US and New Zealand forces were involved secondarily under the other Allied command in the Pacific, namely the Pacific Ocean Areas, in their ongoing thrust to the north-west through the Solomon islands group toward Bougainville.

Major General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment (essentially a reinforced brigade group of Lieutenant General Hiroshi Takeuchi’s 55th Division) and elements of Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue’s 4th Fleet had taken Rabaul on New Britain, in the Territory of New Guinea, from Australian forces in February 1942 and subsequently turned it into their major forward base in the South Pacific, and the main obstacle to advance in the two Allied theatres.

Early in 1943 MacArthur requested five more US Army divisions with which to launch a direct attack on Rabaul, although he could have used Australian forces already at his disposal, but on 28 March 1943 the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff issued a directive for MacArthur instead to isolate Rabaul by means of three thrusts on mainland New Guinea and the island archipelago round the Bismarck Sea to the north-east of New Guinea. For this he was to receive reinforcement in the shape of Krueger’s newly formed 6th Army (known initially as ‘Alamo’ Force).

The Japanese and Allied forces available in the South-West Pacific Area in the third quarter of 1943 as 'Cartwheel' began in earnest were as follows.

For the Japanese army, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura’s 8th Area Army, with its headquarters at Rabaul, controlled Lieutenant General Haruyoshi’s 17th Army with its headquarters in the Shortland islands and controlling Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda’s 6th Division on Bougainville; Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi’s 18th Army with its headquarters at Madang and controlling Lieutenant General Heisuke Abe’s 41st Division at Wewak, Lieutenant General Shigeru Katagiri’s 20th Division at Madang and Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Division at Lae; the 6th Air Division with about 240 aircraft; the 38th Division on New Britain; and Major General Iwao Matsuda’s 65th Brigade on New Britain.

For the Japanese navy, Vice Admiral Junichi Kusaka’s South-East Area Fleet, with its headquarters at Rabaul, controlled Vice Admiral Gunichi Miakwa’s 8th Fleet with its headquarters in the Shortland islands and controlling Major General Minoru Sasaki’s South-Eastern Detachment on New Georgia island with the 13th Regiment and 229th Regiment, Rear Admiral Minoru Ota’s 8th Combined Special Naval Landing Force on New Georgia island and Rear Admiral Minoru Katsuno’s 7th Combined Special Naval Landing Force on Santa Isabel island; Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul with about 300 aircraft; and warships including one light cruiser, eight destroyers and eight submarines.

Japanese reinforcements in the 'Cartwheel' period were the 7th Air Division, which arrived in July 1943, and Lieutenant General Kumaichi Teramoto’s 4th Air Army, which arrived in August 1943.

For the Allies, MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area command, headquartered at Port Moresby, comprised Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger’s 'Alamo' Force (41st Division, 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, 158th Infantry, 112th Cavalry, 503rd Parachute and 12th Marine Defense Battalion), Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey’s Allied Land Forces (Australian 3rd and 9th Divisions), Lieutenant General George C. Kenney’s Allied Air Force with Kenney’s own US 5th AAF (Brigadier General Roger M. Ramey’s V Bomber Command and Brigadier General Paul B. Wurtsmith’s V Fighter Command), Air Vice Marshal William D. Bostock’s Royal Australian Air Force (Hewitt’s No. 9 Group); and Vice Admiral Arthur S. Carpender’s Allied Naval Forces with Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey’s Task Force 67 (Amphibious Force).

The forces of Halsey’s South Pacific Area, headquartered at Nouméa on New Caledonia island and reinforced with ships of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet as and when necessary, comprised Halsey’s own 3rd Fleet controlling Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s TF31 Amphibious Force, which was loaned to MacArthur when needed, with eight destroyers, 36 PT-boats, nine troop-carrying destroyer conversions, three cargo ships, three transport ships, 15 tank landing ships and 39 infantry landing craft; Vice Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch’s TF33 (Air Force South Pacific) with about 258 fighters, 193 medium and light bombers, 82 heavy bombers and 12 flying boats, and including Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Solomon Islands Air Force at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal with the 1st and 2nd Marine Air Wings; Lieutenant General Millard F. Harmon’s Army Forces South Pacific with about 275,000 men (Americal Division, 25th Division, 37th Division with no combat experience and 43rd Division with limited combat experience), Major General Nathan F. Twining’s US 13th AAF, and Major General Clayton B. Vogel’s I Marine Amphibious Corps with the 1st Marine Division on loan to the SWPA, 2nd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, 1st Marine Raider Regiment, six marine defence battalions and the 1st Marine Parachute Regiment.

The ‘Cartwheel’ plan indicated the need for 13 sub-operations and suggested the appropriate scheduling of these. In the event three of the sub-operations (those directed at Rabaul, Kavieng and Kolombangara) were removed as too costly and indeed unnecessary in operational as well as strategic terms, so only 10 were implemented. These latter, with their dates of landing and invasion units, were: ‘Chronicle’ on Woodlark island by the 112th Cavalry and Kiriwina (Trobriand islands group) by the 158th RCT on 30 June 1943; ‘Toenails’ on New Georgia by the 43rd Division on 30 June 1943 (and including Segi Point on New Georgia by the 4th Marine Raider Battalion on 21 June 1943, Rendova island off New Georgia by the 43rd Division’s 169th and 172nd RCTs on 30 June 1943, Zanana on New Georgia by the 169th and 172nd RCTs on 5 July 1943, Bairoko on New Georgia by the 4th Marine Raider Battalion on 5 July 1943, Arundel island by the 172nd RCT on 27 August 1943, and Vella Lavella by the 35th RCT of the 25th Division and the New Zealand 3rd Division on 15 August 1943); ‘Postern’ on Lae in New Guinea by the Australian 7th and 9th Divisions and the 503rd Parachute Infantry on 5 September 1943; ‘Goodtime’ on the Treasury islands by the New Zealand 8th Brigade on 27 October 1943; ‘Blissful’ on Choiseul island by the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion on 29 October 1943; ‘Cherryblossom’ on Bougainville by the 3rd Marine Division and 37th Division on 1 November 1943; ‘Michaelmas’ on Saidor in New Guinea and in New Britain (‘Director’ on Arawe on New Britain by the 112th Cavalry on 15 December 1943, ‘Backhander’ on Cape Gloucester by the 1st Marine Division on 26 December 1943, and Saidor by the 32nd Division on 2 January 1944); ‘Brewer’ on the Admiralty islands group by the 1st Cavalry Division on 29 February 1944); and ‘Beeksteak’ on Emirau island in the St Matthias islands group by the 4th Marines on 20 March 1944.

These thrusts were to establish airfields on Kiriwina and Woodlark islands, located between the mainland of New Guinea and New Britain; to take Lae, Salamaua, Finschhafen and Madang on the mainland of New Guinea, and Cape Gloucester on the western tip of New Britain; and to take the southern part of Bougainville in the Solomon islands chain.

On 30 June the Allies launched simultaneous attacks in New Guinea and on New Georgia in the Solomons. The ‘Toenails’ landing on New Georgia, under Halsey, proved troublesome because of the presence of a large Japanese garrison and the rugged landscape. The New Guinea Force, under the Australian command of Blamey, was assigned responsibility for the eastward thrusts on the mainland of New Guinea. The 6th Army was to take Kiriwina and Woodlark in ‘Chronicle’ and Cape Gloucester in ‘Backhander’. The land forces would be supported by Allied air units (Allied Air Forces and US 5th Army Air Force) under the command of Kenney and naval units (South-West Pacific Force, later renamed the US 7th Fleet, and Allied Naval Forces, South-West Pacific Area) under Carpender.

The campaign stretched into 1944 and revealed the overall effectiveness of a strategy which ignored major concentrations of the Japanese forces and instead aimed at cutting the Japanese lines of communication. While ‘Cartwheel’ was still being implemented, the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the ‘Quadrant’ conference in Quebec during August 1943. The conference then agreed that Rabaul should be bypassed and isolated rather than captured, the US forces then passing straight to the capture of Kavieng on New Ireland. Soon after this it was decided also to bypass Kavieng.

MacArthur initially objected to the bypassing rather than seizure of Rabaul, but this meant that the ‘Elkton’ plan had in fact been achieved, and after ‘Michaelmas’ MacArthur moved to his ‘Reno’ plan for a westward advance along the north coast of New Guinea as the next step in his longer-term objective of a landing on Mindanao island as the first step in the reconquest of the Philippine islands group.

The ‘Cartwheel’ campaign, which ended early in 1944, showed the overall superiority of strategic thinking which allowed the Allied forces to avoid major concentrations of Japanese strength and instead concentrate on cutting the Japanese lines of communication. As such, it proved to be the decisive campaign of the Pacific War, breaking Japanese air power while pinning down the Japanese Navy until the massive expansion of the US Navy got fully under way with the commissioning of large numbers of new and superior ships late in 1943.