Battle of Cape Gloucester
The Battle of Cape Gloucester was a battle in the Pacific theater of World War II between Japanese and Allied forces which took place on the island of New Britain, Territory of New Guinea, between late December 1943 and April 1944.
The battle was a major part of Operation Cartwheel, the main Allied strategy in the South West Pacific Area and Pacific Ocean Areas during 1943–1944, and was the second World War II landing of the U.S. 1st Marine Division, after Guadalcanal. The main objective of the operation was to capture the two Japanese airfields around Cape Gloucester.
The main landing came on 26 December 1943 when U.S. Marines landed either side of the peninsula. The western landing force cut the coastal road, while the main force, landing on the eastern side, advanced north towards the airfields. Their advance was slowed by the swampy terrain, however, initially resistance was light. A Japanese counterattack briefly slowed the advance, however, by 30 December the airfields were firmly under Marine control. Further fighting followed into early January 1944 as the U.S. troops extended their perimeter south from the airfields, with mopping up operations in the vicinity continuing into April 1944.
Cape Gloucester is a headland that sits on the northern peninsula of the western end of the island of New Britain, which lies to the northeast of mainland New Guinea. It is roughly opposite to the Huon Peninsula, from which it is separated by Rooke Island with the intervening sea lane divided into the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. The peninsula on which Cape Gloucester sits consists of a rough semi-circular coastline, extending from Lagoon Point in the west to Borgen Bay in the east. At the base of the peninsula is Mount Talawe, a 6,000-foot (1,800 m) volcano, which runs laterally east to west. The area is densely vegetated with thick rainforest, sharp kunai grass and deep mangrove swamps. There were only a few beaches suitable for landing operations and at the time of the battle, there were no roads around the coast along which troops and vehicles could quickly advance.
Temperatures ranged from 72 to 90 °F (22 to 32 °C), with high humidity. Rainfall was heavy, especially during the northwest monsoon season that ran until February. Air operations in this period could be mounted from Finschhafen; but after February, the climate there was expected to restrict air operations, which would then have to be conducted from Cape Gloucester. The climate therefore dictated the timetable for the Cape Gloucester operation. Before the war a limited airfield had been established on the relatively flat ground that lay at the apex of the peninsula. Following the Japanese invasion of New Britain in early 1942, the airfield had subsequently been developed into two airstrips (the larger of the two being 3,900 feet (1,200 m)), while Borgen Bay had been developed into a staging area for barge operations between mainland New Guinea and the main Japanese base around Rabaul on the eastern end of New Britain.
By late 1943, the fighting in New Guinea had turned in the favor of Allied forces. The Japanese drive on Port Moresby during 1942 and early 1943 had been defeated during the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Kokoda Track campaign. The Japanese beachhead at Buna–Gona was subsequently destroyed, albeit with heavy casualties. The Japanese had been forced to abandon their efforts on Guadalcanal, and the Allies had secured the Salamaua region. In the wake of these successes, the Allies were able to seize the initiative and implemented Operation Cartwheel, a deliberately planned series of subordinate operations aimed at the reduction of the Japanese base at Rabaul and severing lines of communication in the South-West Pacific Area.
The Australians had secured Lae by 16 September 1943, and operations to capture the Huon Peninsula campaign had begun in earnest shortly after that, in an effort to secure Finschaffen before a drive on Saidor. Meanwhile, a secondary effort pushed inland from Lae through the Markham and Ramu Valleys, with the two drives eventually aiming towards Madang. As Allied forces began to make headway on the Huon Peninsula, Allied attention then turned to securing their seaward flank on the other side of the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits.
On 22 September 1943, General Douglas MacArthur issued orders for the invasion of New Britain, codenamed Operation Dexterity. This operation was conceived with several phases, with the broad Allied scheme of maneuver being to secure all of New Britain west of the line between Gasmata and Talasea on the north coast. Within this plan, one of the phases, codenamed Backhander, was a landing around Cape Gloucester aimed at the capture, and expansion of, two Japanese military airfields. This was to contribute to the increased isolation and harassment of the major Japanese base at Rabaul, while a secondary goal was to ensure free Allied sea passage through the straits separating New Britain from New Guinea.
The landing at Gasmata was later cancelled and replaced with a diversionary landing around Arawe, with the plan being to potentially establish a PT boat base there. Perceiving that the Allies could not bypass Rabaul as they attempted to advance towards the Japanese inner perimeter, and would seek to capture it as quickly as possible, the Japanese sought to maintain a sizeable force for the defense of Rabaul, thus reducing the forces available for the defense of western New Britain.
While the landing on Cape Gloucester was scheduled for 26 December, supporting operations for the landings began on 15 December, when the U.S. Army's 112th Cavalry Regiment was landed at Arawe on the south-central coast to block the route of Japanese reinforcements and supplies from east to west and as a diversionary attack from the future Cape Gloucester landings. The operation around Arawe succeeded in diverting about 1,000 Japanese troops away from Cape Gloucester. In the lead up to the Cape Gloucester operation, for several months the area around the airfields and the coastal plain between there and Natamo, to the south of Borgen Bay, was heavily bombed by Allied aircraft. As a result of these attacks, Japanese entrenchments were heavily reduced, while the airfields around Cape Gloucester were so damaged that they were unable to support operations from November onwards.
For the Cape Gloucester operation, US planners assigned Major General William H. Rupertus' 1st Marine Division, which had previously fought on Guadalcanal. The main force assigned to the assault was drawn from the 7th Marine Regiment (Colonel Julian N. Frisbie), reinforced by the 1st Marine Regiment (Colonel William J. Whaling), while the 5th Marine Regiment (Colonel John T. Selden) formed the reserve. Artillery was provided by the 11th Marines (Colonel Robert H. Pepper and later Colonel William H. Harrison). These troops embarked from Oro Bay and were opposed by elements of Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai's 17th Division. These troops were known as "Matsuda Force", after their commander, Major General Iwao Matsuda, and consisted of the 65th Brigade, which was made up of the 53rd and 141st Infantry Regiments, and elements of the 4th Shipping Group. Matsuda's headquarters had been at Kalingi, along the coastal trail northwest of Mount Talawe, within 5 miles (8.0 km) of the Cape Gloucester airfields initially, but following heavy Allied bombardment prior to the battle, it had been moved closer to Borgen Bay, near Egaroppu. After this, the headquarters at Kalingi was taken over by the Colonel Koki Sumiya, commander of the 53rd Infantry Regiment, which was tasked with defense of the airfields. The 141st Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Kenshiro Katayama, was positioned well to the south around Cape Bushing.
Japanese defensive planning was focused upon holding the airfield sector. A series of bunkers, trenches and fortified positions were established along the coast to the east and west, with the strongest position being established to the southeast to defend against Allied troops approaching through the flat grasslands. A strong complex was also established at the base of Mount Talawe, affording a commanding view of the airfields, which were held by a battalion of infantry supported by service troops and several artillery pieces. To the east of the peninsula, the beaches around Silimati Point, which were bounded by heavy swamps, were largely ignored in terms of fortifications, with the Japanese defensive plan focused on holding several high features, Target Hill and Hill 660, and maintaining control of lateral tracks in order to rapidly move forces in response to an attack.
The Allied plan called for a two-pronged landing at several beaches to the east and west of the peninsula, which would be followed by an advance north towards the airfields at Cape Gloucester. The main operation began on 26 December with a naval barrage on the Japanese positions on Cape Gloucester by United States Navy (USN) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships from Task Force 76, followed by air attacks by planes from the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). These attacks and an aerial smoke screen were followed by the landing of the 1st Marine Division, at Yellow Beach 1 & 2, to the east near Silimati Point and Borgen Bay, about 5 miles (8.0 km) southeast of the airfield, and a diversionary landing at Green Beach, to the west at Tauali, about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) from Cape Gloucester. The main assault was focused on Silimati Point with only a single battalion landing in the west. The landing force came ashore aboard craft of various types including APDs, LSTs and LCIs.
The Japanese defenses around the western landing zone at Tauali, on the Dampier Strait side of the peninsula, were found abandoned and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines experienced no opposition coming ashore, preceded by heavy preparatory fires including rockets fired from several amphibious vehicles. Two companies of Japanese from the 53rd Infantry Regiment responded to the landing, but were quickly overcome. By nightfall, the Marines had cut the coastal road, preventing the Japanese from using it to reinforce their positions around the airfields. In the eastern zone, however, the landing was hampered briefly by drifting smoke, which resulted in some troops coming ashore in the wrong spot. The landing area which was located to the north of Borgen Bay, was surrounded largely by swamp, with only a small narrow beach along which the 7th Marines and the remainder of the 1st Marine Regiment and their supporting Sherman tanks could advance towards the airfields. Amidst this terrain, the advance was slow.
Throughout the day, Japanese aircraft attacked the Allied ships around the landing beaches, resulting in the loss of the destroyer USS Brownson with over a hundred of her crew, and further casualties aboard the destroyers USS Shaw and Mugford. Nevertheless, around 13,000 troops were pushed ashore and the attacking Japanese aircraft suffered losses to US fighters and ship-borne anti-aircraft fire. Elsewhere, US and Australian forces landed on Long Island, 80 miles (130 km) to the northwest, where a radar station was established. Opposition in the main landing area was limited initially to rear area troops that had been overrun, but a hasty counterattack by the Japanese 53rd Infantry Regiment was launched throughout the afternoon and evening of the first day, centered largely on the 7th Marines. The Japanese counterattack was held off and the following day the Marines advanced westward, pushing 3 miles (4.8 km) towards their objective before coming up against a strong Japanese blocking position on the eastern side of the airfields, dubbed Hell's Point by the Marines.
Teams from the 19th Naval Construction Battalion worked to improve the routes along which the US forces were advancing as large quantities of supplies were landed. Meanwhile, on 28 December, US armor was brought up and throughout the day the blocking position was reduced amidst heavy fighting that resulted in losses of nine killed and 36 wounded for the Marines, and 266 for the Japanese. Meanwhile, further troops, in the shape of the 5th Marines, were also landed. These troops carried out a flanking move to the south-west while the 1st Marine Regiment continued to advance along the coast. By the end of the day on 29 December, the Marines broke through the Japanese defenses after which they were able to secure the airfield. Japanese air attacks ended on 29 December, when bad weather set in. This was followed by heavy US air activity around Rabaul, which prevented further air attacks on Cape Gloucester. Throughout the final days of December, the Marines overran the airfield on 30 December and expanded their perimeter around the airfield, incorporating Razorback Ridge.
In the weeks that followed, US troops pushed south towards Borgen Bay to extend the perimeter in order to negate the possibility of Japanese artillery attacks on the airfield. Further actions were fought by the 5th and 7th Marines against the 141st Infantry Regiment, which had undertaken a march north across difficult terrain from Cape Bushing following the initial landings. On 2 January, heavy fighting began around Suicide Creek, before shifting towards the high ground around Hill 660. Slowed by bad weather, rugged terrain and heavy resistance, progress for the Marines was slow. The position was finally secured on 16 January 1944 by the Marines after heavy fighting in which 50 Marines and over 200 Japanese were killed. Following the fighting, the Japanese commander, Matsuda, withdrew with around 1,100 troops ceding the area to the Americans, who captured his command post intact.
Casualties during operations to secure Cape Gloucester amounted to 310 killed and 1,083 wounded for the Americans. Japanese losses exceeded 2,000 killed in the December 1943 to January 1944 period.
The Base Engineer and his operations staff landed on 27 December 1943, and completed a reconnaissance of the two Japanese airfields by 30 December. They found that they were 3 feet (0.91 m) deep in kunai grass, and that Japanese had neither attempted to construct proper drainage nor to re-grade the airstrips. They decided not to proceed with any work on No. 1 Airstrip, and to concentrate their efforts on No. 2. The 1913th Engineer Aviation Battalion arrived on 2 January, followed by the 864th Engineer Aviation Battalion on 10 January, and the 841st Engineer Aviation Battalion on 17 January. Work hours were limited by blackout restrictions imposed by the Task Force Commander, which limited work to daylight hours until 8 January 1944, and by heavy and continuous rain from 27 December 1943 until 21 January 1944, averaging 10 inches (250 mm) a week. Grading removing 3 to 6 feet (0.91 to 1.83 m) of material, mostly kunai humus, from two-thirds of the area. The subgrade was then stabilized with red volcanic ash that had to be hauled from the nearest source 8 miles (13 km) away. Marston Mat was then laid over the top, but this did not arrive until 25 January 1944, resulting in further delay. By 31 January, 4,000 feet (1,200 m) of runway was usable, and by 18 March a 5,200-foot (1,600 m) runway was complete. Natural obstacles prevented the runway being lengthened to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) as originally planned, but there were four 100-by-750-foot (30 by 229 m) alert areas, 80 hardstands, a control tower, taxiways, access roads, and facilities and accommodation for four squadrons.
A Beechcraft Model 18 had landed on the runway at Cape Gloucester in January, followed by a C-47. Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, the commander of Alamo Force, inspected the airstrip with Brigadier General Frederic H. Smith, Jr., on 9 January 1944. They estimated that the 8th Fighter Group could move in as early as 15 January. This did not prove feasible; the airbase was not yet complete, and transport aircraft bringing in much-needed supplies overtaxed its limited facilities. The 35th Fighter Squadron arrived on 13 February, followed by the 80th Fighter Squadron on 23 February. Heavy rains made mud ooze up through the holes in the steel plank, making the runway slick. This did not bother the 35th Fighter Squadron's nimble and rugged P-40 Kittyhawks, but the P-38 Lightnings of the 80th Fighter Group found themselves overshooting the short runway. Major General Ennis C. Whitehead, the commander of the Fifth Air Force's Advanced Echelon (ADVON), decided to move the 8th Fighter Group to Nadzab, and replace it with RAAF squadrons from Kiriwina equipped with P-40 Kittyhawks. No. 78 Wing RAAF began moving to Cape Gloucester on 11 March. No. 80 Squadron RAAF arrived on 14 March, followed by No. 78 Squadron RAAF on 16 March, and No. 75 Squadron RAAF two days later. No, 78 Wing provided close air support for the 1st Marine Division ashore, assisted the PT boats offshore, and proved vital air cover for convoys headed to the Admiralty Islands campaign. Operations were maintained at a high tempo until 22 April, when No. 78 Wing was alerted to prepare for Operations Reckless and Persecution, the landings at Hollandia (Jayapura) and Aitape.
To support the airstrip, 18,000 US barrels (2,100,000 l; 570,000 US gal; 470,000 imp gal) of bulk petroleum storage was provided, along with a tanker berth with connections to the five storage tanks. This became operational in May 1944. The 19th Naval Construction Battalion worked on a rock-filled pile and crib pier 130 feet (40 m) long and 540 feet (160 m) wide for Liberty ships. It was not completed before the 19th Naval Construction Battalion left for the Russell Islands, along with the 1st Marine Division, in April 1944. Other works included 800,000 square feet (74,000 m2) of open storage, 120,000 square feet (11,000 m2) of covered warehouse storage and 5,400 cubic feet (150 m3) of refrigerated storage, a 500-bed hospital, which was completed in May 1944, and a water supply system with a capacity of 30,000 US gallons (110,000 l; 25,000 imp gal) per day. Despite problems obtaining suitable road surface materials, 35 miles (56 km) of two-lane all-weather roads were provided, surfaced with sand, clay, volcanic ash and beach gravel. Timber was obtained locally, and a sawmill operated by the 841st Engineer Aviation Battalion produced 1,000,000 board feet (2,400 m3) of lumber.
Alamo Force switched its attention to the landing at Saidor in January 1944 as part of the next stage of wider operations in New Guinea. In mid-January, 17th Division commander Yasushi Sakai sought permission to withdraw his command from western New Britain. On 16 February, US patrols from Cape Gloucester and Arawe linked up around Gilnit. Commencing 23 February, the Japanese forces subsequently sought to disengage from the Americans, and move towards the Talasea area. Marine patrols kept up the pressure on the withdrawing Japanese, with several minor engagements being fought in the center of the island and along its north coast.
Locally, mopping up operations around Cape Gloucester continued throughout early 1944, although by February 1944 US planners began preparing to expand their lodgement further east. In early March 1944, the Americans launched an operation to capture Talasea, on the northern coast of New Britain, as part of actions to follow up Japanese troops who were beginning a general withdrawal towards Cape Hoskins and Rabaul. The 1st Marine Division was relieved around Cape Gloucester on 23 April 1944, and were replaced by the 40th Infantry Division. After this, a period of relative quiet followed on New Britain as the US confined their operations largely to the western end of the island, having decided at a strategic level to bypass Rabaul, while the Japanese stayed close to their base around Rabaul at the opposite end of the island. Later, responsibility for operations on New Britain transferred from US forces to the Australians. In November 1944, they landed at Jacquinot Bay before beginning a limited offensive aimed at securing Wide Bay and Open Bay and confining the larger Japanese force to the Gazelle Peninsula, where they remained until the end of the war.
Ultimately, according to historian John Miller, Cape Gloucester "never became an important air base". Plans to move Thirteenth Air Force units there were cancelled in August 1944. As a result, in assessing the operation historians such as Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison have argued that it was of limited strategic importance in achieving the Allied objectives of Operation Cartwheel. Indeed, Morison characterized it as a "waste of time and effort". However, the airstrip played a vital role in supporting the Admiralty Islands operation, and as an emergency landing field for aircraft damaged in raids on Kavieng and Rabaul. It remained in use until April 1945. In June 1945, the base at Cape Gloucester became part of Base F at Finschhafen.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Cape Gloucester.|
- Rickard, J. (24 April 2015). "Battle of Cape Gloucester, 26 December 1943 – April 1944". Retrieved 15 July 2017.
- "The fighting conditions during the Cape Gloucester campaign as remembered by Marine Sidney Phillips". Archived from the original on 10 April 2010. Retrieved 4 April 2010.