Operation Cottage (i)

This was the US and Canadian reoccupation of Kiska island in the Aleutian islands group (15/16 August 1943).

The move had been presaged by the US military occupation of Amchitka, only 60 miles (95 km) from Kiska, on 12 January 1943 in order to provide the Allied forces with a forward harbour and land on which an eventual three airfields could be constructed. However, the US forces then leapfrogged Kiska, the main Japanese garrison in the Aleutian islands, to take Attu in ‘Landcrab’.

By this time the Japanese high command had accepted that all attempts to hold Kiska in this revised strategic situation would be futile, and opted to evacuate the garrison. The first attempt to achieve this end, on 26 May 1943, resulted in the loss of seven of the 13 ‘I’ class submarines involved, so the Japanese authorities decided to make a second attempt with surface vessels relying on their speed and the area’s notoriously foggy conditions to avoid detection and interception. The evacuation flotilla left Paramushiro in the Kurile islands group on 21 July and slipped into the harbour of Kiska on 28 July. The well-planned evacuation of the remaining 5,183 men of the island’s original garrison of 7,000 men took a mere 55 minutes, and the flotilla then steamed back to Paramushiro.

Unaware of the Japanese garrison’s departure, the Americans developed the ‘Cottage’ (i) plan from the original 'Boodle' concept in light of their experience in ‘Landcrab’. Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid sought to ensure that this final assault in the Aleutians would employ troops better equipped and more effectively trained than those used in ‘Landcrab’. For ‘Cottage’ (i), therefore, the US troops would wear clothing and footwear optimised for survival and combat in cold weather, and the assault force would consist of either combat veterans from Attu or troops trained at Adak in the type of fighting that had developed on Attu.

By this time US intelligence had upgraded its earlier estimates of the Japanese strength on Kiska to about 10,000 men, and Kinkaid accordingly arranged for his American ground force commander, Major General Charles H. Corlett, to have at his disposal 34,426 troops, including 5,500 Canadians, which was more than double the strength planned for the operation earlier in the same year.

‘Cottage’ (i) was based on an assault force which set out from Adak on 13 August with 20 transports, 42 landing ships and boats, and many auxiliary craft. Escort was provided by the destroyers Aylwin, Bancroft, Bush, Caldwell, Coghlan, Dale, Daley, Dewey, Farragut, Hull, Monaghan and Mullany. Heavy support was provided, under Kingman’s command, by the battleships Idaho, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, heavy cruiser Portland, light cruiser Santa Fe, and destroyers Ammen, Abner Read (damaged by a mine on 18 August), Bache, Beale, Brownson, Hutchins and Phelps; some 168 landplanes were also available to help the operation.

‘Cottage’ (i) was scheduled for 15 August with the troops (US 17th, 53rd and 184th Infantry, US 87th Mountain Infantry, US/Canadian 1st Special Service Force and Canadian 13th Brigade Group) landing on an island only 3 to 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 km) wide and with a high, irregular ridge dividing its 22-mile (35.4-km) length and with an extinct volcano at its northern end. The Japanese had occupied only the east central portion of the island, locating their main base and airfield at Kiska harbour, and had also established smaller garrisons on Little Kiska island and south of the main harbour at Gertrude Cove.

Unlike Attu, Kiska had been subjected to heavy naval and air bombardments before any landing was attempted. The US destroyers Farragut and Hull had shelled the island on 30 July, and another bombardment had been effected on 2 August by Rear Admiral Wilder D. Baker’s Task Group 16.6, comprising the heavy cruisers Indianapolis and Salt Lake City, light cruisers Detroit, Raleigh and Richmond, and destroyers Edwards, Farragut, Frazier, Gansevoort and Meade, and Rear Admiral Howard F. Kingman’s TG16.7, comprising the battleships Idaho and Tennessee, and destroyers Anderson, Aylwin, Dale and Phelps, and on 12 August by TG16.6 once more.

Reinforced during June and operating from new airfields (at Attu and nearby Shemya), 350 aircraft of Major General William O. Butler’s 11th AAF dropped 424 tons of bombs on Kiska during July, and during the same month the warships of a naval task force fired 330 tons of shells onto the island. The combined air and surface bombardment continued into August, the only interruptions being those occasioned by bad weather. In total, US aircraft had dropped some 1,310 tons of bombs in the course of 1,585 sorties.

From a time late in July, most pilots reported no signs of Japanese activity on the island, although a few noted that they had still received light anti-aircraft fire. These reports led intelligence analysts to conclude that the Japanese on Kiska had either been evacuated or taken to the hills. Convinced that the latter was more likely, Kinkaid ordered the attack to take place as scheduled, noting that if the Japanese were not there the landings would be a ‘super dress rehearsal, good for training purposes’.

Departing Adak, the staging area for the invasion, the combined US and Canadian force reached Kiska early on 15 August. The sea and air conditions off Kiska were good and, after feinting a landing at Gertrude Cove on the island’s eastern side, US troops landed on the western side of the island, and by a time in the late afternoon some 6,500 men had landed. On the next day Canadian troops came ashore onto another beach farther to the north. As with the fight for Attu, the landings were unopposed.

The Allied troops pushed inland, and in this period the weather returned to the typical pattern of dense fog interspersed with cold rain and wind. Despite the fact that the men who had fought on Attu expected the Japanese to be waiting in prepared positions on the high ground above them, the only guns fired were those of friend against friend. Partially as a result of this ‘friendly fire’ tendency, the casualties ashore during the first four days of the operation numbered 32 dead (28 US and four Canadian) as well as 121 sick and wounded. The US Navy lost 71 dead or missing and 47 wounded when, on 18 August, the destroyer Abner Read struck a mine.

By the time the search of the island, including miles of tunnels, was over and the US casualty list had risen to 313 men including 191 posted as missing but probably killed in other ‘friendly fire’ incidents, and four killed by Japanese land mines and booby traps. The Allies had attacked an island uninhabited except by four dogs which the Japanese had abandoned. To make the embarrassment complete, the Kiska evacuation had been carried out on 28 July, almost three weeks before the Allied landing.

On 24 August Corlett declared the island secure, marking the end of the Aleutian islands campaign. By the end of 1943 US and Canadian troop strength in Alaska would drop from a maximum of about 144,000 to 113,000, and by hat time the North Pacific Area had reverted from US Navy to US Army control. During 1944 the Canadians departed, and US Army strength in the Alaska Defense Command decreased to 63,000 men.

Although interest in the theatre waned, it was in the Aleutians that the USA in fact achieved its first theatre-wide victory in World War II, ending Japan’s only campaign in the western hemisphere. In clearing the Japanese from the Aleutians, the objective had been to eliminate a potential military threat, but more importantly to remove the psychological blow of a Japanese military foothold in the western hemisphere.

From the arrival of their first troops in the islands during June 1942, the Japanese had threatened the USA’s north-western flank. Fourteen months later the reverse was true, although the idea of using the western Aleutians as stepping stones to Japan had no official approval. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commanding the USA’s Western Defense Command, and other senior officers occasionally urged an assault by this route upon Kurile islands group, to the north of the Japanese home islands, but commitments to other theatres, together with the desire of the USSR not to have its neutrality with Japan compromised, prevented all but cursory consideration of the concept. From the Japanese perspective, however, the threat from the Aleutians remained.

The US troops stationed in the Aleutians during the last two years of the war were not involved, but the launch of a number of harassing attacks, against targets in the Kurile islands group, by Butler’s (from 13 September 1943 Major General Davenport Johnson’s) 11th AAF from Aleutian bases persuaded the Japanese high command to maintain substantial defences in the area. In the later stages of the war, these totalled about 15% of Japan’s total air strength.

The centrepiece of the campaign had been the battle for Attu. In terms of numbers engaged, the battle for Attu ranks as one of the most costly assaults undertaken in the Pacific theatre. For every 100 Japanese dead found on the island, about 71 Americans had been killed or wounded. The cost of taking Attu was thus second only to Iwo Jima. Of some consolation, the invasion of Rendova island in the Solomon islands group during June proceeded well largely because of the struggle for Attu.

In an attempt to either reinforce or evacuate Attu, the Japanese high command had ordered Vice Admiral Shiro Kawase’s 5th Fleet north from Truk in the Caroline islands group during May into the western Aleutians, thereby greatly reducing Japanese naval strength in the area of the Solomon islands group. While the fleet was summoned back before reaching the Aleutians, its absence from the area of the Solomon islands group allowed the US forces to complete a virtually unopposed landing on Rendova.

Concerned with the bloodiness of the fighting for Attu, Kinkaid had sought to avoid any repetition of Attu’s errors at Kiska, so while the landing on Kiska was itself too late and therefore a failure, the thoroughness and detail of the planning were worth the effort for their implications in later, contested assault landings. The lessons learned by the US Army in equipping and preparing its troops for operations under severe geographical and climatic conditions proved useful for the Italian campaign, in which almost arctic conditions were sometimes encountered in the Apennine mountains, and many of the techniques of amphibious warfare developed during the Attu landings and refined for Kiska were further improved and applied to advantage in later amphibious operations in the Pacific.

However, in one sense the departure of the Japanese from Kiska without a fight was unfortunate, for it gave US commanders a false picture of what might be expected from the Japanese when the odds were strongly against them. Instead of fighting to the death, as they had done at Attu, the Japanese had disappeared swiftly and silently. It was not something that would be repeated.