Background: In December 1943 there was no good news for Germany in Europe. The Russians were advancing. The Western Allies had not yet landed in France — but an invasion was clearly coming. British and American bombers were making life miserable for those in Germany’s cities. But in the Far East there seemed hope. This article takes as reliable wildly inflated Japanese accounts of damage inflicted on the Americans in the Bougainville campaign. It was a bitter, costly campaign. However, this article claims huge American losses that had no relation to reality. The article claims, for example, that two aircraft carriers, four battleships, and dozens of other ships were sunk. In fact, the US lost no battleships, aircraft carriers, or cruisers during the campaign. Unlike German accounts of the war in Europe that generally had a reasonable connection to the reality, Germans got what seemed to be convincing reports of enormous Allied losses in the Pacific.
The source: “Bougainville. Ein Zweites Pearl Harbor,” Die Wehrmacht, #25 (8 December 1943), pp. 14-16.
by Hans Uhle
We are still all too limited in our thinking. It is hard for us to get used to seeing and evaluating this war as single world event of truly massive scope. Given the ceaselessly raging defensive battle against Bolshevism in the East and the Italian crisis that we overcame only because of our truly superior political and military leadership, our focus has more than ever been on the war in and around Europe. Recently we have focused almost exclusively on the Moscow Conference. This conference was not only a fiasco for the Anglo-American partners of Bolshevism, who failed in achieving their European goals. There can be no doubt that Stalin also rejected the US-American wishes with regards to the war in East Asia just as he did the attempts to accompany the delivery of Europe to Bolshevism with soft Anglo-American music. Many may think this unimportant. However, that rejection is certainly harder for plutocracy, particularly Washington, to accept than the Kremlin’s demand for the unconditional surrender of Europe. They still dream of a “certain victory” over Germany, even if in Churchill’s words the coming year 1944 will demand the greatest sacrifice of blood — while the situation in the Asian-Pacific theater is becoming ever more threatening for the USA, which must carry the main burden there. Stalin’s refusal removes some hopes for the Pacific offensive that began on 30 June of this year, and which were urgently needed. The US-Americans would so gladly have gained cheap bases for a central attack on the Japanese core regions since their leaps over the “stepping stones” in the Solomon Islands have required ever greater sacrifices, pushing back success in this great battle ever further into the future.
The “Third Phase” of the Battle in the Solomons
We remember that the great “Pacific Offensive” of the US-Americans under the leadership of Supreme Commander MacArthur began on 30 June with a landing on Rendova in the Solomon Islands. From there they jumped to New Georgia and several smaller islands, where they had heavy losses in hard battles continuing to the end of August. Their strategic goal was a wide pincher movement with one arm over the Aleutians, the other reaching northwards from Australia and New Zealand past New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. At the Quebec Conference that began on 17 August, Roosevelt and Churchill announced a continuation of this offensive, despite the unusually high losses the USA had suffered in battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers. Losses of the latter were so great that the USA had to use English aircraft carriers for a while. British Minister of Information Brendan Bracken repeated on that occasion that: “After Hitler and his supporters are eliminated, the whole power of the British Empire will be applied to the destruction of the Japanese military machine.” It had to be clear to the USA that it would have to continue to carry the burden of the battle in East Asia and the Pacific by itself.
The significance of that realization is clear from an official Japanese statement of 25 August that summarized both enemy and Japanese losses from the beginning of the Pacific offensive up until 25 August. 32 USA cruisers and destroyers and 48 transports were sunk or heavily damaged and 914 aircraft shown down. During the same period, the Japanese lost four cruisers and destroyers and 120 aircraft — partially through sacrifice missions. After these heavy losses President Roosevelt thought it necessary to reveal some of the facts to the USA’s people in a message to Congress upon its reconvening on 17 September: “We face, in the Orient, a long and difficult fight. We must be prepared for heavy losses in winning that fight.” The losses did not decline. Even the smallest islands took weeks or months to capture. The islands of Vella Lavella and Kolombangara were cleared of Japanese only on 9 October, long after the severe “Night Battle of Kolombangara” of 12 July during which the US-Americans suffered heavy losses.
Strategic Conditions and Realities
The Japanese withdrawals followed a larger strategic plan that had been developed after the first major US-American attack on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. It assumed that US-American pressure would fall on forward Japanese positions in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. The enormous South Pacific island area that Japan conquered and in which it prepared defensive positions was — and is — an extraordinarily strong weapon in Japanese hands. Any shortening of the front lines in this area must necessarily lead to a strengthening of Japan’s interior defensive lines. Each time the US-Americans jump to one of MacArthur’s so-called “stepping stones,” on the other hand, their supply lines become closer to the danger area of Japan’s main defensive line.
One may not forget that the US-American battle for the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, and ultimately for Australia, is primarily a problem of transport. In view of the slow progress of the Pacific offensive, Roosevelt particularly addressed this problem in his message to Congress on 17 September. He stated clearly that the expanded range of aircraft made possible a wider combat area, but that everything necessary for the war effort had to be transported by ship. Troops and equipment of every sort, spare parts, some of the food, and above all fuel for warships and aircraft must be transported from the USA over many thousands of kilometers. Fuel is a major problem. The consequences of the loss of oil fields and the British fleet in Borneo, along with the loss of oil fields in Dutch territory and Burma are clearly weighing heavily on the Allies, whereas the Japanese can enjoy all the benefits of these conquests.
That in part explains the superiority of the Japanese fleet over its enemy. This shows the fundamental strategic significance of naval construction. The USA fleet is an aggressive fleet intended to drive into the wide reaches of the Pacific. Japanese military strategy assumes a defense of Japanese oceanic space. That means that USA warships must have an enormous radius of action that can only be gained by reducing armor and weaponry — to a certain extent, of course. The opposite is true of Japanese naval construction. Its strategic plan requires a significantly smaller radius of action and its available supply bases allow for stronger armor and weaponry. This fact has been decisive in all the Pacific naval battles to this point and was also evident in the Solomon Islands, since Japanese conquests allowed for a secure fuel supply.
The extraordinarily difficult supply problems MacArthur’s offensive faces explains in part the relative calm in naval warfare in the Solomon Islands since August. That along with the catastrophic losses of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers and other warships of every kind had hindered the activity of the USA fleet for some time. They have not given up on the offensive, however, as is clear from some significant facts in the Japanese military dispatch. It cannot be denied that the USA is working feverishly to complete battleships and aircraft carriers that have been under construction for a long time and which are intended for the Pacific. All available facilities were being used to repair ships. The USA is gradually assembling strong naval forces in Hawaii, the greater part of which heads for the South Pacific. The very heavy loss of aircraft carriers is also being gradually replaced, so that by the end of October there were about 1,200 to 1,300 aircraft in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, about 1,400 to 1,500 in Australia and New Zealand, and another 1,000 machines in Hawaii. The combined offensive Australian-American forces at the same time were about ten divisions. It was clear to the Japanese in October that the opponent soon intended to continue the Pacific offensive.
Direction of Attack: Bougainville
All the defensive advantages of interior lines were available to the Japanese. They could be surprised neither by the time nor the place of the next attack, which meant that the US-Americans lacked to of the most important prerequisites for an offensive from the beginning. The Japanese knew the first great goals of the US-American “stepping stone” offensive in the Solomon Islands: from Rabaul to New Britain [the article uses the original German name — Neupommern]. After Rabaul, the only possibility was Bougrainville in the Solomon Islands. The Japanese could be sure that the next target of MacArthur’s offensive would be Bougainville.
Bougainville is the largest of the Solomon Islands. Together with the small northern island of Buka, it is 8800 square kilometers in size and has a population of about 40,000. Its main city is the port of Kieta. Like all the Solomon Islands, it is mountainous. Its highest peak is the volcano Toincu, 3100 meters high. Until the First World War, Bougainville was the main island of German territory in the Solomon Islands. It fell under British mandate in 1919, and later under Australian mandate. Its name honors the first French circumnavigator of the world, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who rediscovered it during the years 1767-1769. Its name, however, will go down in history as one of the greatest battles of annihilation of all time.
Toward the end of October, the US-Americans launched extraordinarily heavy air attacks on Japanese bases, above all on airfields, in Bourgainville, Buka, and New Britain. The intensity of these attacks is shown by the fact that about 250 of the bombers and accompanying fighters were shot down. That was the signal for the attack on Bougainville, which MacArthur had said clearly was part of his strategic plan: “My strategy is to use all three military branches to launch concentrated surprise assaults (which was not the case here) against important enemy positions.” He did not wait long. On the evening of 31 October Japanese observers sighted for the first time a large US-American fleet that — in many groups — was heading toward Bougainville. Japanese naval aircraft were immediately sent to make unbroken attacks from the evening of 31 October to 2 November. They sank a cruiser, a destroyer, two large troop transports and at least forty landing boats. They further damaged a large number of warships and transports, while losing a total of fifteen aircraft in these attacks.
The first reaction from the air should have been a warning to the US-Americans. They had assumed despite their own enormous losses that their strong attacks had largely destroyed the Japanese air bases. They should have realized after the first Japanese air attacks that this was not the case, and that MacArthur’s fantasies that the Japanese aircraft had been destroyed lacked any basis in reality. Instead, during the Battle of Bougainville they plunged stubbornly into destruction, doubtlessly assuming that the Japanese were no longer able to launch a counteroffensive. It is clear from the Battle of Bougainville that US-American fantasies about having destroyed Japanese aircraft and warships never before had such bitter results. The Japanese navy, which supposedly had had its back broken, made this announcement about this first “Battle of Bougainville”: During the night of 1 - 2 November, Japanese naval forces attacked the US-American fleet. In the resulting naval battle, the Japanese lost one destroyer, while sinking three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser or destroyer, and three large destroyers.
As at Guadalcanal
After the first attack by the US-Americans, the battles on Bougainville developed in much the same way as the battles for Guadalcanal more than twelve months earlier. Under huge covering support from naval artillery and bombs, they were able to land in two places on the west of the island at Empress Augusta Bay, while landings in other areas failed. These beachheads, however, proved to be magnets that drew warships, aircraft, and troops to the bottom of the sea, a continuation of the battle of naval matériel announced by the Japanese headquarters and a brilliant confirmation of the Japanese strategy of attrition in the Solomons. The US-Americans were forced to supply both beachheads by sea or to give up on the troops they had landed.
That they had no intention of doing that was quickly made clear. While ceremonies honoring the first battle of Bougainville were being held in Japan, the Imperial Headquarters released a second major victory announcement about the destruction of a US-American fleet that was bringing reinforcements for the two beachheads. On 5 November Japanese observers spotted a strong enemy fleet south of Bougainville that was heading toward the island. Japanese torpedo planes attacked the force of eleven ships immediately, sinking two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and two further ships that could not be precisely identified as cruisers or destroyers. Only five smaller enemy vessels escaped, heading south.
For the first time since the costly Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands of 26 October 1942 during which the Japanese sank four USA aircraft carriers, enemy aircraft carriers of the new “Island” class participated in the battle. One sank within two minutes after an enormous explosion and the other sank after major fires. Battleships were not involved in this battle, but it soon proved necessary for the US-Americans to attempt a breakthrough to their landing sites with the support of battleships. The US-Americans had withdrawn the battleships after the “Third Naval Battle of the Solomon Islands” from 12-15 November 1942. Those that had not been sunk were withdrawn with more or less serious damage before the end of the year.
Two days after the destruction of the fleet south of Bougainville, a new fleet of heavy US-American units approached Bougainville — which the Japanese had apparently expected. The attack of the Japanese naval aircraft was powerful and crowned with appropriate success. Three battleships, two cruisers, three large destroyers and four USA transports were destroyed and other large vessels damaged. But the “Second Air Battle of Bougainville” was not yet over. The defeated USA fleet was tirelessly pursued by Japanese aviators and a further battleship that had been damaged in the earlier attack was sunk and three large cruisers and a light cruiser (or destroyer) were damaged.
The Worst Catastrophe since Pearl Harbor
After the second air battle of Bougainville it was clear that the battle for the island was one of the decisive Japanese victories of the war in the East Asian-Pacific Theater. It was the greatest catastrophe suffered by the American naval command since Pearl Harbor. At Pearl Harbor the USA was able to raise several of the ships that had been sunk and put them back into service. Now they were at the bottom of the South Pacific. The White House convened an extraordinary council of war and general panic broke out in the USA after the Japanese victory, evidenced by a major decline in the New York Stock Exchange. Following the usual tactics, the USA’s military leadership, and above all the Department of the Navy, maintained the iciest silence. Japan, however, celebrated the victor in the battles, Admiral Koga, the successor of the immortal naval hero Yamamoto, to whom the Führer had awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Admiral Koga has led the Japanese navy, which has never been defeated, to new glory.
At the same time as the second air battle, there were major battles between the Japanese navy and enemy units in the waters around Bougainville. As a result of the continuing battles and the resulting catastrophic losses, the USA found itself in an extraordinarily difficult position not only at the beachhead on Bougainville, but also at the large island of Choiseul southwest of Bougainville where according to an announcement from MacArthur’s headquarters on 12 November, US-American parachute troops that had landed there had to be withdrawn. That doubtlessly happened because it was impossible to supply them because of the heavy US-American shipping losses, clear proof of the unusual success of the Japanese — which is still concealed in Washington. Despite the withdrawal from Choiseul, the attack on Bougainville or the strengthening of the troops that had landed there remained MacArthur’s goal. Ruthlessly using his reserves, he sent a strong new fleet toward Bougainville.
The result was the “Third and Fourth Air Battles of Bougainville” on 12-13 November. Again Japanese naval aircraft carried the brunt of the battle, and with new successes. During the third battle, a light cruiser was sunk and a battleship, two large aircraft carriers, a heavy cruiser, and two light cruisers or destroyers were damaged. The fourth air battle on the dawn of 13 November resulted in the sinking of a heavy cruiser, a light cruiser, and a destroyer. A battleship and a medium aircraft carrier were heavily damaged. The latter probably sank.
Totaling the losses after this fourth battle and including the USA’s losses at the small Solomon Island of Mono on 27 October, between 27 October and 13 November the losses in the battle for Bougainville were a total of 68 or 69 enemy warships and transports sunk or damaged, and at least 40 landing craft sunk and a number of other landing vehicles destroyed. Direct hits in the narrow waters around Bougainville sank a large aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers, five cruisers, a light cruiser or destroyer, two large destroyers, and three large transports. During the same period elsewhere in the Solomon Islands and related to the Battle of Bougainville, four battleships, a medium aircraft carrier, four heavy cruisers, a cruiser, three light cruisers or destroyers, five destroyers, and five transports were destroyed. Another 31 or 32 enemy warships were damaged, including two battleships, two large and one medium aircraft carriers, ten or eleven cruisers, one cruiser, eight light cruisers or destroyers, three destroyers, and three large and one small transports. 430 US-American aircraft were destroyed. If one compares these enormous losses with the Japanese losses, it becomes clear that Japan’s superior warfare during the Battle of Bougainville resulted in one of the greatest battles of annihilation in the entire history of naval warfare. The Japanese lost two destroyers and 108 aircraft, some of which were lost in sacrificial missions. Two cruisers were also lightly damaged in this decisive victory.
The Solomons have repeatedly shown the entirely incorrect strategic views that the British and Australians held about the South Pacific region before the beginning of the Japanese occupation. The two sides have battled ferociously for them for more than more than 15 months. These battles have long since surpassed our conceptions of naval combat and its significance in war. The end is not in sight. Its significance for the global struggle of the three signatories to the Berlin treaty, however, is already clear. There can be no doubt that the catastrophic losses suffered by the USA in the Solomons —and more will certainly follow — demand a major portion of US-American military capacities. The noisy rhetoric about the unhindered and unlimited USA war production for the war against Germany is clearly refuted. If one calmly and rationally considers the war situation in the Pacific, it is clear that enough is going on even to keep the trees in the USA from growing to the heavens.
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