The Battle of the Bismarck Sea by Michael Veitch

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

A 1943 US short film entitled “Bismarck Sea Victory!” is an object lesson in not letting the facts interfere with a good story. Comparing it to Michael Veitch’s written version of the same battle is the perfect advertisement for why we still read books.

The battle took place in March 1943 and pitted a heavily armed Japanese convoy against massed planes flown by American and Australian crews. The Japanese were making a pivotal move to land 7,000 troops at Lae on the northern coast of New Guinea. Lae was already an established base, but injection of additional troops would allow them to create a new headquarters.

Strategically, this was part of a counter offensive by Japan, following major defeats at Midway Island in 1941, the Kokoda trail in 1942 and Guadalcanal in February 1943. Despite Kokoda, they maintained a key objective to take Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. Moving their headquarters from Rabaul to Lae would be a critical step in expansion to the south.

The battle was unique for a number of reasons. Like Midway, early warning of Japanese intentions came from radio intercepts and code breaking in Australia; but, unlike Midway, it involved land based planes against ships. The most extraordinary thing was the planning and the scale of the attack. Around 100 planes crowded the skies and the attack used layered formations of fighters, skip bombers and high altitude bombers that created a virtually indefensible wave of air strikes. “Nothing like this in the Pacific War had ever been witnessed: the aircraft of sixteen Allied squadrons converging on one small piece of sky” [p245].

Despite inevitable confusion during the battle, which inadvertently risked allied planes being hit by ‘friendly fire’, the losses by the Allies were minimal. The result was a one-sided conflict that saw the demise of all the Japanese merchant ships and some of the escorting destroyers.

Commendably, Michael uses copious eye witness accounts to create drama and transport readers into the fray. The spearhead strikes by RAAF Beaufighters are reconstructed from photographs by Damien Parer and accounts of the airmen. The resulting narrative puts the reader inside those planes and is nothing short of spine tingling.

“Pulling up from mast height to attack altitude, the Beaufighters advanced, spread out, as one observer noted, ‘like a cavalry of old’ “[p257]

“Concentrating on the heavy bombers above, one Japanese three-man ack ack crew remained totally unaware of the low level Beaufighters until the moment they appeared, practically on top of them” [p259].

The battle coincided with a final turning of the tide against the Japanese. A few months later, the allies began a string of offensives that saw the Japanese driven from their Pacific territories and ultimately to the final assaults on the Japanese home islands.

Perhaps surprisingly, the battle itself occurs in Chapter 21, close to the end of the book.  What makes the content appealing is the way that Michael draws various threads together that are all critical for the battle’s success, many of which were chance events or people that were thrown together, rather than some brilliant strategic plan. The book describes many of these – such as the skip bombing trials and the ‘backyard’ additions of armaments to US bombers. By chapter 21, readers understand these dynamics and the frenzied story can proceed uninterrupted by technical details.

The tactical plan for the battle was brilliantly conceived and was testament to the skills, intellect and perseverance of leaders from America and Australia.

A minor gripe is the somewhat hyperbolic subtitle of “the forgotten battle that saved the Pacific”. It is certainly not as well-known as other battles in New Guinea, but the implication is that this is an untold story, which is not so.  Even excluding the well-intentioned newsreel, the battle has been covered by American and Australian authors several times since the end of the war. Not to mention original written and photographic material from eye witnesses and combatants, from both sides. There is even a war game and an ABC film. Extensive references are testament to Michael’s reliance on this material and I suspect that he would be a little diffident about the publisher’s exuberance.

Nevertheless, this story deserves to be told again and the extensive use of primary sources, including eyewitness accounts, sets the record straight from errors in some of the earlier documents. Even then, Michael acknowledges the gross inaccuracies of many of the official reports, particularly from the US.

Chapter 14 “The Codebreakers” is an outline of the critical work of Australian and American signals intelligence in Townsville and Melbourne. Described here another reference to one of the “great untold stories” in which the role of Australians is “under-appreciated” [p171]. Perhaps this is an oversight, but there are two recent books  published on the topic – Craig Collie “Code Breakers” and  David Dufty “The Secret Code-Breakers of­ Central Bureau” .  There is even a Wikipedia entry on Central Bureau in Brisbane and a novel about the women cryptographers.

These are minor issues that do not detract from the quality of the writing. The objectivity and non-judgemental tone make this latest version of the battle of the Bismarck Sea a pleasure to read. The story is told without hyperbole or melodrama and the result is a masterclass of the genre.

Michael Veitch is well known as an author, actor and former ABC television and radio presenter. His books include accounts of Australian airmen in World War II, 44 Days, Heroes of the Skies, Fly, Flak, Barney Greatrex, Turning Point and The Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

 The Battle of the Bismarck Sea

(July 2021)

by Michael Veitch

Hachette

ISBN: 9780733645891 (Hardcopy)

$32.99; 328pp

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