Operation Battle of New Georgia

The 'Battle of New Georgia' was a campaign involving several land and naval battles between Allied, primarily US, and Japanese forces for possession of New Georgia island in the Solomon islands group (30 June/7 October 1943).

The campaign was part of 'Cartwheel', the Allied strategic plan in the South Pacific to isolate the Japanese base area round Rabaul on New Britain island. The campaign took place in the New Georgia group of islands, in the central part of the Solomon islands group and followed the Allied 'Cleanslate' capture of the Russell islands group=just to the north-west of Guadalcanal. The main fighting took place on New Georgia island itself, although significant actions also occurred round the island chain throughout the campaign.

The campaign began on 30 June 1943, when US troops landed from the sea in the Kula Gulf, in the north of New Georgia island, and around the Munda area on the western coast. In addition, smaller landings were undertaken at Viru Harbour on the island’s southern coast, Wickham Anchorage on Vangunu island, and on Rendova island. In the north, several actions were fought around Enogai and Bairoko throughout July, while in the west the principal US objective was the Japanese airfield on Munda Point. Stubborn Japanese defence delayed the US advance on Munda and the Japanese mounted a strong counterattack before US force eventually captured Munda Point early in August.

Elsewhere, further actions took place on Arundel island in August and September after Japanese forces had withdrawn onto these after the fighting around Munda Point. A large number of Japanese troops concentrated on Kolombangara island late in the campaign, but were bypassed by US troops who landed on Vella Lavella island in 'Dogeared' during the middle of August and were later reinforced by New Zealand troops. The campaign ended on 7 October when the last Japanese troops were withdrawn from Vella Lavella island, finalising the Allied capture of the islands.

A series of naval actions also took place in conjunction with the fighting on land, including actions in the Kula Gulf, off Kolombangara, in the Vella Gulf, off Horaniu and off Vella Lavella.

The Japanese had captured New Georgia in 1942 and at Munda Pont built an air base which began operations in December 1942 to support the Guadalcanal offensive. As it became clear at the end of 1942 that they could not hold Guadalcanal, the Japanese commanders estimated that the Allies would next move toward the Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain, and that the central part of the Solomon islands group was a logical step on the way.

The Imperial Japanese army believed that holding the Solomon islands group would be ultimately unsuccessful and that it would be better to wait for an Allied attack on Bougainville island, which would be much less costly to supply and reinforce. The Imperial Japanese navy preferred to delay the Allied advance for as long as possible by maintaining a more distant line of defence. With no effective central command, the two Japanese services implemented their own plans: the navy and army assumed responsibility for the defence of the central and northern parts of the Solomon islands group respectively.

Early in 1943, Japanese defences were readied against the possibility of Allied landings on New Georgia, Kolombangara and Santa Isabel islands. By June 1943, there were 10,500 Japanese troops on New Georgia and 9,000 on Kolombangara, all under the command of Lieutenant General Minoru (Noboru) Sasaki’s Nanto Detachment. These forces were well dug in and waiting for an Allied attack.

By a time early in 1943, some Allied leaders had come to prefer the option of capturing Rabaul, but Japanese strength in that area ere and the shortage of landing craft meant that such an operation was not practical for 1943. Instead, on the initiative of the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff and the South-West Pacific Area’s commanders, including General Douglas MacArthur, the 'Cartwheel' plan was developed. This proposed to envelop and cut off Rabaul without capturing it through the use of simultaneous offensives in the Territory of New Guinea and northward through the Solomon islands group.

The Allied base at Guadalcanal continued to suffer from Japanese bombing raids even after the island had been declared secure on 9 February 1943. The Japanese airfield at Munda facilitated these raids by providing Japanese aircraft with a convenient place to refuel on the way to and from their main base at Rabaul. The Allies attempted to neutralise Munda with repeated bombing raids and naval shelling, but the Japanese were always able to repair the airfield in short order. The Allied command thus determined that Munda had to be captured by ground troops. Since the New Georgia group of islands lay within the South-West Pacific Area, which was any area of the Solomon islands group lying to the west of longitude 159° East, the operation would be the responsibility of MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area command and would be conducted by forces of Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific Area command. Halsey’s operations to the east of longitude 159° East reported to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Areas command. Halsey, whose South Pacific Force was renamed the US 3rd Fleet on 15 March 1943, was headquartered at Nouméa on New Caledonia island. The US forces committed to capturing Munda totalled 32,000 US Army personnel and 1,700 US Marine Corps personnel. The forces allocated to the capture of Vella Lavella island totalled 9,588 men, of whom 5,888 were US servicemen and 3,700 New Zealand personnel.

The Russell islands group, lying between Guadalcanal and the New Georgia islands group, had served as a troop staging base for the Japanese during the fight for Guadalcanal, and Halsey decided that it had to be taken in preparation for the main action in the New Georgia islands group. Early in February 1943, he instructed Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, formerly his deputy commander and now his Commander Amphibious Forces, South Pacific, to undertake 'Cleanslate'. Beginning on 21 February, Turner landed Major General John H. Hester’s 43rd Division of the US Army and Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Liversedge’s 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, a total of about 9,000 me, on the Russell islands. The landings were totally unopposed because, unknown to the Allies, the Japanese had evacuated the islands soon after leaving Guadalcanal.

Alarmed that the Allies were now starting to work their way up the 'chain' of the Solomon islands group, the Japanese bombed the new US base in the Russell islands and began strengthening their own airfields at Munda and at nearby Vila on Kolombangara island. In turn, the Americans attempted to subdue Munda air base with naval gunfire but enjoyed only limited success. During the course of one of these overnight bombardment sorties, on the night of 6/7 March a US force comprising three light cruisers and three destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral A. Stanton Merrill encountered two Japanese destroyers as they were returning to the Kula Gulf from delivering food and supplies to the garrison at Vila. In the ensuing action, known as the Battle of Blackett Strait, both Japanese destroyers were sunk.

The Americans next attempted to interdict the Japanese maritime supply lanes by mining the sea approaches to Vila and Munda. This proved as ineffective as bombardment had been as the Japanese were able to sweep the mines.

The Allies had considerable time to plan 'Toenails', as the invasion of the New Georgia group was designated. The Allied thinking was based on the concept of simultaneous landings at four places on 30 June: from south-east to north-west, these locations were Wickham Anchorage on the south-eastern coast of Vangunu island, Segi Point on the south-eastern tip of New Georgia island, Viru Harbour on the south-western coast of New Georgia island just a few miles from Segi, and Rendova Harbour on Rendova island just across the Blanche Channel from Munda, placing the latter Japanese base well within range of land-based artillery.

New Georgia lies about halfway up the 'chain' of the Solomon islands group. At 45 miles (72 km) in length from north-west to south-east, it is the largest island of the New Georgia islands group, which also includes Kolombangara, Rendova with its 3,400-ft (1035-m) peak), and Vella Lavella. Its northern coast is protected by an almost continuous coral reef. However, there are passes through the southern reef into the Blanche Channel, an unusually deep protected body of water. Blanche Bay itself was accessible only from the south-east, its western entrance being blocked by reefs and islets. There were good anchorages on the north-western coast, facing Kolombangara across the Kula Gulf, at Bairoko Harbour, Enogai Inlet and Rice Anchorage. There were also anchorages on the south-eastern coast, at Segi Point and Viru Harbour. There was also a good anchorage at Wickham Anchorage on the eastern coast of Vangunu island just to the east of New Georgia. However, the best natural anchorage in the group was at Rendova Harbour to the north-west of the island. New Georgia’s terrain is mostly rugged and characterised by jungle-covered hills. The climate is even hotter and damper than that of Guadalcanal, and malaria was endemic.

During the entire New Georgia campaign, the resolution and resourcefulness of the British Commonwealth coastwatchers proved invaluable to the Allied cause. District Officer Donald Gilbert Kennedy, a New Zealander, set the tone in a message he delivered to every native village when occupation by the Japanese was imminent: 'These islands are British and they are to remain British. The government is not leaving. Even if the Japanese come, we shall stay with you and in the end they will be driven out.' In the event, it was the prospect of Kennedy being killed or captured that led Turner to move up the first Allied landings by nine days. He sent two companies of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion to capture Segi Point on the morning of 21 June, where Kennedy and his native comrades were rescued.

A force comprising elements of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion and the 103rd Infantry landed in Oloana Bay on the south coast of Vangunu island on 30 June. From there the US force marched overland to Vura village, which overlooked Wickham Anchorage, the first of the objectives of the original Allied plan. By 12 July, Vura had been secured and garrisoned. Meanwhile, the remainder of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion captured Viru Harbour, supported by dive-bombers, on 30 June, after advancing overland from Lambeti Plantation. They had moved to the plantation by boat on 27 June from Segi Point, having been despatched there on 21 June during a preliminary operation. Another company of the 103rd Infantry relieved the marines in Viru Harbour on 4 July, having landed at Segi Point on 30 June when the marines' advance had been delayed.

The landings in the Munda area were the most important of the four. The initial phase of this part of the operation was the capture of Rendova under Turner’s direct command. A total of 6,000 soldiers, sailors and marines of the US Army’s 172nd Infantry, the 9th Marine Defense Battalion, and the US Navy’s 24th Naval Construction Battalion landed at Rendova Harbour early on 30 June while Companies A and B of the 169th Infantry, together with 130 South Pacific islanders of a commando unit trained and led by the New Zealanders took three strategic islets in the Blanche Channel opposite Munda. Rendova, Wickham Anchorage and Viru Harbour were then quickly developed as staging areas for the main event, the siege of Munda, while Segi Point was developed into an airfield. The small Japanese garrison on Rendova island was quickly overwhelmed but the island was subjected to heavy attack by Japanese aircraft over the following days. The marines on Rendova island quickly built artillery emplacements from which they could shell Munda airfield and support operations during July and August to capture of Munda airfield.

On 2 July, the Americans were ready to make a landing in the Munda area on the New Georgia mainland. Laiana beach was closest, being only 2 miles (3.2 km) from Munda but, being strongly defended, was rejected in favour of Zanana beach, more than 3 miles (4.8 km) farther to the east. Zanana would prove to be an unfortunate choice. The crossing was undertaken in daylight by elements of two regiments in the afternoon of 2 July; a small perimeter was established around Zanana, and defences were built up before the start of the advance westward to Munda Point several days later.

Halsey’s counterparts at Rabaul, Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka of the 11th Air Fleet and Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura of the 16th Army, had no intention of allowing New Georgia to fall in the manner that Guadalcanal had succumbed. They loaded 4,000 troops on destroyers, brought them down 'The Slot' on the night of 4/5 July and landed them at Vila on the south-eastern coast of Kolombangara island. From there, the men would be ferried across Kula Gulf by barge to Bairoko on the north-western coast of New Georgia before moving along an 8-mile (12.9-km) jungle trail to Munda.

The Allies also carried out an amphibious operation in Kula Gulf that night. Halsey had despatched transports carrying 4,600 troops (marine raiders and two army battalions under Liversedge) to Rice Anchorage on the north-western coast of New Georgia. A force of three light cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth covered the troop transports. One of Ainsworth’s destroyers was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese as the latter were retiring up the gulf from their reinforcement mission to Vila.

Liversedge’s men were tasked with moving down the coast and capturing Bairoko, thereby interdicting the trailhead used by the Japanese to reinforce Munda. The American force was landed successfully at dawn, but found the terrain difficult and advanced slowly inland over the course of several days.

On 5/6 July, during the night after the Kula Gulf landings, the opposing naval forces engaged in a full-scale battle in the waters to the north-east of Kolombangara island, an action that came to be called the 'Battle of the Kula Gulf'. The Americans lost one light cruiser while the Japanese lost two destroyers. In the north, after advancing from Rice Anchorage, US forces occupied Triri on 7/8 July. A 400-man Japanese force launched a counterattack against Triri on 8 July, and this initially made some gains before being checked by a flanking move. After this, US troops captured Enogai at the mouth of the inlet on 10/11 July, before moving to establish a block along the trail linking Munda and Bairoko.

The US advance from Zanana to Munda was completely paralysed by the difficulty of the terrain, supply problems and low morale. Hester tried to break the stalemate by sending the 172nd Infantry around to the north to take the Japanese position in the rear, while the 169th Infantry continued the frontal assault, but this effort was checked by Sasaki’s forces. As a result, the US advance on New Georgia stalled in both the north and the south. The Japanese brought reinforcements by barge from Vila to Bairoko, and 1,200 more troops were loaded onto four destroyer transports at Rabaul and sent to be landed at Vila on the night of 12/13 July. The were escorted by a light cruiser and five destroyers. Ainsworth was sent to intercept this flotilla with three light cruisers and 10 destroyers, which met the Japanese force in 'The Slot' in the waters to the north of Kolombangara island, and in the 'Battle of Kolombangara' one US destroyer and one Japanese light cruiser were sunk.

Major General Oscar W. Griswold, commander of the US XIV Corps and Hester’s immediate superior, visited New Georgia in mid-July and assessed the situation as dire. He contacted Halsey at Nouméa that at least one more division was needed to break the stalemate. Lieutenant General Millard F. Harmon, commander of the US Army Forces, South Pacific Areas, was sent to confirm the situation and, after an investigation, gave field command to Griswold so that Hester could concentrate on leading his own division under his replacement by Major General John R. Hodge. At the same time, a long-anticipated change in naval command took place with Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson taking over leadership of the amphibious forces from Turner on 15 July.

Sasaki initially took advantage of the disorder on the US side. The Japanese learned to apply close assault tactics against US tanks, rendering armour even less effective in the jungle than usual. Meanwhile, the inexperienced, hungry and fatigued US soldiers' nerves began to fray and they began to lose fire discipline. On the night of 17 July, the Japanese launched a strong counterattack and overran the 43rd Division’s command post near Zanana. Eventually, however, Sasaki’s troops became sick and exhausted, and Sasaki’s position became more difficult after communication with Rabaul was lost. The US forces, bolstered by the arrival of the 37th Division, subsequently launched a corps-level offensive under Griswold aimed at capturing Munda Point, and Sasaki ordered a retreat from the Munda area on 3 August. Griswold had his men sweep around Munda to the north-west and on 5 August shattered the remaining Japanese with artillery fire. On this day the US forces moved unopposed into Munda, finally achieving the campaign’s most important objective.

On the northern front, Liversedge’s marines consolidated their position around Enogai after 12 July and began to patrol the area while US Army troops occupied the blocking position. This was subsequently abandoned on 17 July and the soldiers returned to Triri. Liversedge had been reinforced by 700 marines of the 4th Raider Battalion and made plans to capture Bairoko village, on the eastern side of Bairoko Harbour, on 20 July. His army detachment was to attack the village from the south-east while his marines converged from the north-east in a pincer movement. The Japanese defensive positions were well designed, however, and had been reinforced since the initial US landing at the Rice Anchorage and, as a result, neither force made any progress, and US casualties began to mount. Just before dawn on 22 July, Liversedge called for air attacks to cover his withdrawal. With a view to compensating for failures in land-based air cover following previous requests of this type, what followed was the heaviest aerial bombardment of the campaign so far.

From 3 August, Liversedge tried again, first establishing a battalion of the 148th Infantry at a blocking position on the Munda trail. Two days later he relieved these men with a combined army and marine force and moved the 148th Infantry to a dominant position overlooking the entire area. On 10 August, Liversedge picked up another US battalion and renewed the direct attack on Bairoko. At the same time, two regiments of the 25th Division, sent to New Georgia as reinforcements, advanced on Bairoko from Munda Point mopping up after the capture of Munda airfield. After another two grueling weeks, the Americans entered Bairoko unopposed on 24 August.

At Rabaul, Kusaka and Imamura made a final but disastrous attempt to reinforce Sasaki’s forces. Under the protection of a single destroyer, 940 troops and 700 naval personnel were loaded aboard three destroyer transports and despatched under the command of Rear Admiral Kaju Sugiura to Kolombangara on the night of 6/7 August. Anticipating such a movement that night, Wilkinson sent a force of six destroyers under Commander Frederick Moosbrugger to intercept them. In the resulting 'Battle of the Vella Gulf', fought in the waters to the north-west of Kolombangara island, the US destroyers took the Japanese completely by surprise. The three destroyer transports were torpedoed and sunk, and the remaining escort ship did not linger to search for survivors. After this major reversal, Sasaki moved his headquarters to Kolombangara on 8/9 August, leaving a token force to defend New Georgia;'s western coast. Sasaki’s task was now simply to hold the remaining islands of the New Georgia group for as long as possible, giving the Japanese a chance to reinforce their locations in the northern part of the Solomon islands group. US Army forces moved along Nw Georgia’s western coast, destroying the 200 Japanese remaining in the Zieta area. Elements of the 169th Infantry and 172nd Infantry captured Baanga islet on 20/21 August, silencing the Japanese artillery that had been shelling Munda. Despite the proximity of US patrols, the last Japanese troops on New Georgia were removed by barge from Bairoko Harbour to Kolombangara on the night of 23 August, and this marked the end of ground combat on New Georgia.

Sasaki played his delaying role to the hilt. When 172nd Infantry landed on Arundel island, which lies just to the west of New Georgia, on 27 August, he allowed the assaulting force to come ashore unopposed and establish a beach-head. Just as the Americans were feeling the occupation would be easy, Sasaki counterattacked in multiple places, tying the Americans down and forcing them to call for reinforcements. He carried out a particularly determined attack on 15 September, bringing the whole Allied effort on Arundel island to a halt, and with far fewer troops than his opponents. Griswold ordered a full-scale effort, including tanks of the US Marine Corps, to drive the Japanese off the island. After vicious fighting on 17 and 18 September, the Japanese abandoned Arundel island on the night of 20/21 September.

Halsey had earlier seen the sense of bypassing heavily fortified Kolombangara island and instead landing on Vella Lavella island, the latter island lying closer to Bougainville and Rabaul and being less well defended. Thus, a month before New Georgia had been secured, the Allies landed a reconnaissance party on Vella Lavella island to gain information about Japanese strength and dispositions as well as about suitable landing sites, before returning to Guadalcanal on 31 July. The village of Barakoma near the island’s south-eastern tip was selected as the landing place. A large invasion force of about 6,500 men under the command of Brigadier General Robert B. McClure, deputy commander of the 25th Division, escorted by 12 destroyers under Wilkinson’s command, was despatched from Guadalcanal early on 14 August. That night, Japanese aircraft attacked many Allied bases, but completely missed this flotilla heading for Vella Lavella island, and on the morning of the following day disembarkation began at Barakoma.

The Japanese high command in Tokyo had already decided that no more troops would be expended to no good purpose in the central part of the Solomon islands group. Rather than reinforce and defend Vella Lavella, the island was now to be used merely as a way station for the evacuation of troops from Kolombangara, which hat had been bypassed by the Allies with this new landing. Horaniu, on the north-eastern coast, was selected as a barge staging point, and on the night of 17/18 August a small force of ground and naval troops was sent to secure the area. The Japanese destroyer covering force was met in 'The Slot' by four US destroyers under the command of Captain Thomas J. Ryan, and subsequently fought an inconclusive action off Horaniu. No ships of either side were lost and the Japanese succeeded in establishing a barge base.

Meanwhile, throughout August, the Allies pushed the remaining Japanese ground forces on Vella Lavella into a pocket on the island’s north-western corner. Major General H. E. Barrowclough’s New Zealand 3rd Division was tasked with destroying this pocket. The New Zealanders began their pincer movement on 21 September, but the Japanese resisted so fiercely that it took until 5/6 October to contain them. On the night of 6/7 October, Rear Admiral Matsuji Ijuin led a naval force to remove the 600 remaining ground troops off Vella Lavella. In response, a force of US destroyers was despatched to intercept the Japanese ships. Each side lost a ship in the ensuing naval battle, but the Japanese were able to complete their evacuation. As a result, Barrowclough’s men entered the evacuated area unopposed, thereby concluding the New Georgia campaign.

Kolombangara was evacuated between 28 September and 4 October after the US forces had bypassed it. The Japanese had stationed a large number of troops on the island and had extensively fortified so that they could undertake a stubborn defense, but MacArthur’s and Halsey’s strategic plan was to take only lightly guarded beaches and islands and simply ignore the heavily defended islands.

Casualties during the campaign amounted to 1,195 US servicemen killed and 93 aircraft destroyed, while the Japanese lost 1,671 men killed, and 358 aircraft destroyed. In addition, a total of 3,873 US troops were wounded. Losses to disease were also high, as were psychological casualties, with more than 2,500 men being diagnosed with 'war neurosis" between 30 June and 30 September.

The next stage of the Allied advance through the Solomon islands group was to see them land at Cape Torokina as part of the 'Cherryblossom' efforts to secure Bougainville island from November: this campaign was to last until the end of the war, with Australian troops relieving US troops late in 1944. This was preceded by diversionary actions in the Treasury islands group by elements of the New Zealand 3rd Division in 'Goodtime', and by US Marines on Choiseul island in Blissful'. Elsewhere, in New Guinea, from a time late in September, the Allies launched campaigns in the Markham river valley and on the Huon peninsula as part of efforts to secure Lae and Finschhafen.

The New Georgia campaign has been described as 'the most unintelligently waged land campaign of the Pacific war (with the possible exception of Okinawa). The decision to land at Zanana during operations to secure Munda was a major error, most have agreed, suggesting that Laiana should have been chosen. Other criticism has been levelled at the failed flanking move undertaken by Hester’s troops to break the deadlock during the initial drive on Munda, which has been described as 'perhaps the worst blunder in the [campaign].