Editorial: Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Changing History
Curtis Szmania brings another history lesson to the Wargamer with the Battle of the Bismarck Sea...and then changes history in his AAR using HPS Simulations' Naval Campaigns: Guadacanal.
Battle of the Bismarck Sea
2 – 4 March 1943
The war that erupted in the Pacific between Japan and her enemies initially went in Japan’s favor. But as the Imperial government took on more and more enemies she began to become overwhelmed. By the spring of 1943 she had lost her naval superiority in the Pacific following the Battle of Midway, and she began a fighting withdraw—albeit a very heroic and stubborn one—back to the Japanese homeland. This was the stressful situation that a particular, and important, Japanese convoy was facing when it was attacked between 2nd and 4th of March 1943. The engagement would become known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.
Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa
The convoy’s contents were vital to the Japanese war effort. It consisted of eight troop transports full of reinforcements destined for the Japanese garrison in Lae, New Guinea. The Japanese wished to strengthen New Guinea following the fall of Guadalcanal and the reinforcements were vital because Lae had just begun to receive the attention of Allied forces—they were starting to put pressure on the garrison in preparation for an Allied invasion. In January and February contingents from the 20th and 41st Infantry Divisions had already been shipped to Japanese bases in New Guinea. Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa planned to strengthen the island further with units from another division, and he began assembling the convoy on 28 February 1943.
A portion of the 51st Division was onboard six of the transports: AIYO MARU, KYOKUSEI MARU, OIGAWA MARU, SHINAI MARU, TAIMEI MARU and TEIYO MARU. This portion totaled 6,000 men including supplies, weapons, and ammunition. The seventh transport, the KEMBU MARU, carried ammunition fuel while the NOJIMA hauled 400 marines. The ships were organized for rapid deployment once so no time would be wasted once their destination had been reached.
Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura
There were eight escorts for the convoy: the SHIRAYUKI, SHIKINAMI, URANAMI, TOKITSUKAZE, YUKIKAZE, ASASHIO, ARASHIO and ASAGUMO. Because of the importance of the contents, these were elite destroyers and they were under the overall command of Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura. Lieutenant General Adachi Hatazo, of Eighteenth Army, was in the TOKITSUKAZE. Lieutenant General Nakano Hidemitsu and his staff, of the 51st Division, were sailing in the YUKIKAZE. The SHIRAYUKI was at the head of the convoy, which had Rear Admiral Kimura’s flag draped on its aft. 100 fighters were also assigned to provide air cover during the voyage. The whole Japanese task force was taking part in what was designated as Operation 81. The group of ships left the port of Rabaul, New Britain at a mild seven knots right after midnight on 1 March 1943.
U.S. Fifth Air Force Commander Major General George Kenney
The Japanese were expecting enemy air attacks during their voyage. They were well aware of the advantage their enemy had in the air in the region but they figured that if at least half of the transports made it to Lae successfully then the operation would be a success. The US Fifth Army Air Force was the particular enemy in this scenario, the Allied air unit of the Southwest Pacific Area. The Fifth was commanded by Major General George Kenney, a man who swore to cut off the enemy supplies and reinforcements arriving to New Guinea. With the support of several Royal Australian Air Force squadrons it boasted 129 fighters and 207 bombers in airfields throughout Papua, New Guinea. The Allied aircraft numbers weren’t the only thing they had in their favor. Thanks to the efforts of Kenney, the bombers they used had just recently been upgraded to carrying delayed-action 500 lb. bombs. These bombs could be used with the new skip-bombing anti-shipping tactic. As the name suggests, with this tactic the aircraft flew low and skipped their ordnance on the surface of the water. The bomb would then either skip into the side of the ship and explode, submerge under the ship and explode, or skip over the ship and explode in mid-air—theoretically. These bombers had also recently been given forward firing cannons to assist in their anti-shipping efforts.
The Allies got word that a convoy would be sailing near the beginning of March from enemy intelligence. The Japanese convoy was spotted on the afternoon of the 1st at 1400 by a B-24, sailing just north of New Britain. But the well trained airmen of the Fifth did not attack on the first because of poor visibility conditions and the late time of day. In turn, the cloud cover encouraged the Japanese who hoped of reaching Lae with their full convoy. The Allied attack was to be postponed till the morning of the 2nd.
Map of the battle
On that morning several B-17s were sent out, while Australian A-20s from Port Moresby attacked the airfield at Lae, and fatally struck the KYOKUSEI MARU. Though, the B-17’s did little damage thereafter. 900 men onboard the sinking transport managed to escape to the destroyers YUKIKAZE and ASAGUMO. These destroyers then took off at full speed leaving the formation and arrived at Lae. They then disembarked their passengers—including General Nakano—and returned to the convoy in the early morning of the 3rd. The moment the two destroyers rejoined the convoy it was entering the Huon Gulf, after turning south and through the Vitiaz Strait. They were now just 80 miles from their destination.
Throughout the night the convoy was tracked by Australian Catalina bombers. Two Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers set off from Milne Bay around 0325 but came back without hitting their targets. At about 1000 the Japanese spotted a large enemy aircraft formation towards the south. The Allies sent 90 aircraft to sink the convoy while 22 Australian Douglas Bostons flew to Lae to harass the Japanese air cover. With 30 fighters flying above for protection, the convoy turned to port to meet their enemy head on. The Allied formation was made up of a concoction of Australian Beauforts and Beaufighters, with American A-20’s and B-25’s flying lower and B-17’s flying above at 7,000 feet. The bombers were escorted by P-38, P-39, and P-40 fighters.
The initial attack was a complete success. The B-17’s managed to disperse the Japanese formation, limiting the effectiveness of their anti-aircraft fire. The Beaufighters of No. 30 squadron followed and devastated the superstructures of the vessels with cannon fire. 28 of the first 37 bombs hit their targets. The KEMBU MARU went down with one large explosion. By 0805 the AIYO MARU, OIGAWA MARU and NOJIMA lay still in the water, having all been hit. Soon after, the SHINAI MARU, TAIMEI MARU and TEIYO MARU started receiving their share of the attention and were hit four times each. Men began jumping overboard and the water soon become crowded with survivors.
The destroyers also didn’t escape the onslaught. The flagship, the SHIRAYUKI, was hit in her stern. Many of her crew and Rear Admiral Kimura, who had been wounded, were transported to the SHIKINAMI prior to her sinking. The ARASHIO was hit three times and ran into the NOJIMA, having lost control of her rudder. And having received a hit near her engine room, the TOKITSUKAZE was left dead in the water. To prevent further casualties and to help in the rescuing effort, the YUKIKAZE removed most of her crew—including General Adachi—and just kept a salvage party onboard.
Japanese transport under air attack
As the first air assault wave flew off into the distance the remaining destroyers not damaged in the attack went to work picking up survivors in the water. The total survivor count on that day would reach 2,700 men—275 more would be picked up by the submarines I-17 and I-26. The convoy turned north back up through the Vitiaz Strait leaving the badly damaged ASASHIO behind with the sinking transports. The ASASHIO’s fate was finally decided when Allied planes returned in the afternoon to finish off the stragglers. The last signal received from the ASASHIO reported renewed air attacks. One-by-one the transports disappeared beneath the waves. The last one left, the OIGAWA MARU, was finished off by two American PT-boats after sunset.
That night, Rear Admiral Kimura returned to pick up more survivors. He transferred passengers to and received fuel from the HATSUYUKI. During this rescue the SHIKINAMI, YUKIKAZE and ASAGUMO picked up 190 men from the wrecks of the ARASHIO and the TOKITSUKAZE. However, over the next couple of days Allied aircraft strafed survivors left floating about the water. This was the nature of the war fought in the Pacific.
Operation 81 was a disaster. All eight transports and four battle-hardened destroyers were sunk, and 15-20 aircraft were lost; between 3,000 and 7,000 men in all. In turn, the Allies only lost 2 bombers and 3 fighters. The Japanese were devastated by the catastrophe. They launched an air attack of their own in retaliation on Buna, New Guinea but it did little damage. The Lae garrison fell to Australian forces seven months later and the Japanese changed their policy to never again allow large convoys to sail within the range of such extensive enemy air assets. They now realized the importance of air superiority. General Mikawa said of the battle, “It is certain that the success obtained by the American air force in this battle dealt a fatal blow to the South Pacific.” The disaster is often considered as the main reason for the Japanese loss of New Guinea.
Suggested video games: Naval Campaigns: Guadalcanal, Silent Hunter IV, Battlestations: Pacific, War in the Pacific: Admiral’s Edition, Pacific Fighters, Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater
And now Curtis Szmania travels back in time (figuratively) in HPS Simulations' Naval Campaigns: Guadacanal to change history! So put up your feet and click on the YouTube links below to watch the action unfold!
Changing History: Battle of the Bismarck Sea
Today I’ll be changing history using HPS Simulations’ Naval Campaigns: Guadalcanal and its “Bismarck Sea” scenario. The Bismarck Sea scenario only runs 20 minutes long, as the game is in real-time; although historically it was a three day battle. I will be playing as the Japanese. Since I will be working within the confines of the game, the whole three day battle will be portrayed within a mere 20 minutes. The Japanese transport KYOKUSEI MARU, which sank on the first day, is afloat and well. The whole convoy is present at the beginning of the battle, including air cover. My forces are as follows:
8 troop transports - AIYO MARU, KYOKUSEI MARU, OIGAWA MARU, SHINAI MARU, TAIMEI MARU, TEIYO MARU, KEMBU MARU, NOJIMA
8 destroyer escorts- SHIRAYUKI, SHIKINAMI, URANAMI, TOKITSUKAZE, YUKIKAZE, ASASHIO, ARASHIO and ASAGUMO
11 A6M3 Zero fighters
The enemy force is mostly unknown, but I know it will consist of aircraft only. I am assuming there will be a mixture of B-17’s, B-25’s, P-38’s, P-39’s, P-40’s, Beaufighters, and A-20’s. Their total number is unknown and I do not know from where they will approach. I will not move the course of my convoy until the enemy is spotted, as I want to keep a consistency with what happened historically—not spoiling it by knowing what happens beforehand. I will, however, change the formation of the convoy to one that suits me better. If you want to find out more, watch the video!
4 A6M3’s destroyed
3 destroyer escorts destroyed – URANAMI, YUKIKAZE, ASASHIO
1 troop transport disabled - SHINAI MARU
1 destroyer escort disabled – TOKITSUKAZE
3 troop transports damaged - KYOKUSEI MARU, AIYO MARU, TAIMEI MARU
2 destroyer escorts damaged – ARASHIO, SHIRAYUKI
5 aircraft destroyed
8 troop transports destroyed
4 destroyer escorts destroyed
15-20 aircraft destroyed
5 aircraft destroyed (2 bombers and 3 fighters)
When compared to the historical results, I fared very well. I did not lose one transport! And since the transports were more valuable than the destroyers, this was a complete success. The Japanese estimated that had they got half of the transports to reach their destination then the operation would be a success. With only losing 3 destroyers and some aircraft but managing to keep the vital reinforcements and supplies afloat, I’ve perhaps saved the garrison in which they were destined for—Lae, New Guinea. The one disabled transport I had may have been saved if it were towed. If not, perhaps its contents could have been transferred to another ship.
Anyhow, I believe it was the dispersion of the transport ships when the enemy was spotted that limited the effect of the bombing. By sending the troop transports in varying directions I was able to disperse the enemy aircraft as well, thus lessening their overall effect. If my ships were all huddled together, they would have presented a much larger target. Using smoke screens also helped disrupt the enemy aircraft. The chaos that was unfolding within my convoy with ships sailing about in all sorts of directions would make a difficult target for bombers above.I also took pains to attack the bombers that were approaching my convoy as soon as possible, leaving the bombers that had already dropped their payload alone. The greatest threat to my ships were the enemy bombers, not the enemy fighters. Therefore, it was vital for my fighters to attack them first. I was willing to risk losing fighters for transport ships. This strategy pulled-off and I left the scene with most of my fleet still afloat. The garrison at Lae would have survived much longer than it had and the Japanese would have held out in New Guinea for a longer period of time, perhaps even prolonging the war. Did I extend the war? Nonetheless, this is how you win the Battle of the Bismarck Sea as the Japanese.
Article Written By: Curtis Szmania, Staff Writer