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The Pacific

I: Japanese Plans Defeated

page 204

I: Japanese Plans Defeated

MOBILISATION orders to General Juichi Terauchi's South Army, elements of which ultimately reached the Solomons, were issued by Japanese Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo on 6 November 1941, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the areas to be seized were decided on 20 November while British and American diplomats were negotiating in an attempt to avoid a conflict with Japan. Operations were to begin simultaneously with those of the Combined Japanese Fleet, and the areas to be seized were clearly defined in the following order:


The seizure of Malaya, British Borneo, the Philippines, and North Sumatra.


The seizure of Java.


Cleaning up Burma.

Two paragraphs disposed of the objective:


The objective of this operation is to destroy and seize enemy strongholds of Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands;


The sectors to be seized by the South Army are the Philippines, British Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Borneo and Timor, &c. (‘etcetera’ presumably meaning all the intervening island groups).

This operation was the fulfilment of secret plans contained in an ‘Outline of Japanese Foreign Policy’, dated 28 September 1940, and issued by the Japanese Foreign Office, in which the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere was definitely defined:

In the regions including French Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies, Straits Settlements, British Malaya, Thailand, the Philippine Islands, British Borneo and Burma, with Japan, Manchukuo and China as the centre, we should construct a sphere in which the politics, economy, and culture of those countries and regions are combined.

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French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies: We must, in the first place, endeavour to conclude a comprehensive economic agreement (including the distribution of resources, trade adjustment in and out of the Co-prosperity Sphere, currency and exchange agreements, &c.), while planning such political coalitions as the recognition of independence, the conclusion of mutual assistance pacts, &c.


Thailand: We should strive to strengthen mutual assistance and coalition in political, economic, and military affairs.

On 4 October 1940 a tentative plan for policy towards the southern regions was secretly drawn up, the first paragraph of which gives the clue to Japan's aggressive attack: ‘Although the objective of Japan's penetration into the southern regions covers, in its first stage, the whole area to the west of Hawaii (excluding for the time being the Philippines and Guam), French Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies, British Burma and the Straits Settlements are the areas which we should first control. Then we should gradually advance into the other areas. However, depending on the attitude of the United States Government, the Philippines and Guam will be included.’

In detailing this plan an independence movement, which would cause France to renounce her sovereign right, was to be manœuvred in French Indo-China, every attempt was to be made to reach an understanding with Chiang Kai-shek in China, and the army of Thailand left to control Cambodia. These actions were to be governed by Japan's liaison with Germany (with whom she had complete diplomatic understanding), and the success of the German military operations to land in Britain.

By the first week in May 1942 elements of Terauchi's army had reached as far south as Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomons, and east to Tarawa in the Northern Gilbert Group. Only one corner of New Guinea of all the island territory north, north-east, and north-west of Australia remained to the Allies and there, in valleys behind Port Moresby, Australian forces were concentrated and airfields established as quickly as the machinery could make them available for use by aircraft, most of which were coming from America. Only the Owen Stanley Ranges separated them from the Japanese forces which were established along the northern coast at Lae and Salamaua. Burma, Malaya, the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, Java, Sumatra, Timor, the Philippines, Borneo, New Britain and New Ireland, and most of New Guinea itself were held by the Japanese, according to the plans drawn up in Tokyo in 1940.

This swift and unexpected success in overrunning Allied territory, which contributed to her ultimate undoing, encouraged the Japanese High Command to attack the Dutch East Indies sooner than the page 206 provisions of the original plan intended, and then to push farther south beyond the Solomons. In March Terauchi was instructed to complete mopping-up in the captured areas as quickly as possible and to secure a strong defence which would withstand a long period of resistance. Two months later tentative plans were issued for an attack on Port Moresby, Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa, the occupation of which, in the light of previous successes, was to ‘accelerate the termination of the war’. Those three island groups, and the Northern Gilberts, were to constitute the outer rim of the Japanese defence line in the Pacific. Established in them, and holding Port Moresby to cover the Rabaul arsenal and control the Coral Sea, she aimed to sever all sea routes between America and Australia and New Zealand, thus preventing the concentration in those two countries of forces sufficiently strong for a decisive counter-attack. From aerodromes and naval bases in New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, ports and bases in the north of New Zealand and on the mainland of Australia were to be bombed into impotence and Japan's inner fortress line, swinging on Rabaul, Truk and Palau, was to have been made impregnable, while behind it she built up her Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Before this rosy plan could be accomplished, however, the situation was changed, and units were quickly withdrawn from Java and the Philippines and despatched to bolster elements of 17 Japanese Army attempting to retake and hold the Solomons after the American landing there on 7 August.

Japan's advance south had been as swift as it was previously thought impossible before the fall of Singapore. By 3 May a seaplane base had been established at Tulagi, former headquarters of the British administration in the Solomons, and by early August an aerodrome on Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, had been completed. These were in readiness for the contemplated attack on Port Moresby to ensure security on the Japanese left flank. When the first attack on Port Moresby was turned back by the Coral Sea battle, fought out on waters between the Solomons and the Louisiade Archipelago between 6 and 8 May, orders were issued to the 17 Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Harukichi Hyakutake, on 18 May to attack New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, and to continue the attack on Port Moresby overland. The main body of his army, which was created from elements of the South Army after it had completed its original mission, was drawn from 5, 18, and 56 Divisions, the principal units of which were concentrated at Davao, in the Southern Philippines, with others in Java and Rabaul. Hyakutake moved his headquarters and the main force to Truk and elements to Rabaul and Palau from the end of June to the page 207 beginning of July, when the attack on the island groups was to be developed.

The Fiji defences, with which 3 New Zealand Division was so long and arduously concerned, were never tested, though the island itself was vital to the ultimate success of the Pacific war. If the Japanese attack had come in early July as originally planned, it is doubtful whether they would have held for any length of time against the weight of the naval and air support under which the Japanese proposed to put their land forces ashore At that time the anti-aircraft defences of Fiji had been strengthened by the arrival of American units, as plans were in preparation for the relief of 3 Division. Considerable American strength was also being built up in New Caledonia and Samoa.

The attacking force under Hyakutake which was designed for the conquest of the three island groups was a strong one, with overwhelming naval support from the Second Fleet under Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo, consisting of 13 heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 24 destroyers, and the First Air Fleet under Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, with seven aircraft carriers and eleven destroyers as well as auxiliary supply ships. This whole invasion force was to be protected by Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa's fleet, which included the four battleships Hiyei, Kirishima, Kongo, and Haruna. Although the three island invasion forces never got beyond the planning stage, many of the units taking part had been moved to Rabaul from Davao and Java. Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi commanded a force of 9126 all ranks assigned to attack Fiji. This consisted of 35 Infantry Brigade (from 35 Japanese Army in the Philippines) with the following units attached: two battalions of 41 Infantry Regiment; 45 Field Anti-Aircraft Battalion and two independent anti-tank companies; 20 Independent Mountain Artillery Battalion; 15 Independent Engineer Regiment, with an engineer company attached for heavy bridging; a motor transport company; a hospital; strong signals units equipped with field wireless; and a water supply unit. The South Seas Detachment of 5549 all ranks, under Major-General Tomitara Horii, was assigned for the invasion of New Caledonia and was built round 55 Infantry Brigade Group, 144 Infantry Regiment, and 47 Field Anti-Aircraft Battalion and ancilliary units from 55 Brigade. A force of 1215 all ranks, commanded by Colonel Kiyomi Yazawa and built round a battalion of 41 Infantry Regiment, with a land combat battalion and supporting units from 14 and 17 Armies, was assigned to take Samoa.

Each of these three landing forces contained elements of 17 Army and was particularly strong in communications units—all eight page 208 radio platoons and an independent company being equipped with motorised vehicles. These three expeditions, timed to begin simultaneous attacks in order to divert and cause the dispersal of any relief forces, were disastrously affected by the Battle of the Coral Sea, which halted their preparations, and then by the Battle of Midway, which forced their cancellation, as many of the naval and air units destined for them were destroyed or damaged.

The first tests of American aggression, which ultimately led to these two sea battles, developed from audacious raids on Japanese targets in the Caroline and Marshall Islands on 31 January 1942, and on Wake Island on 24 February, by naval units commanded by Halsey, who later succeeded Ghormley as commander of the South Pacific area and whose pugnacious character was reflected in his directives and strategy for the Solomons campaign. These tests demonstrated that air power and air superiority were necessary in all naval engagements. This had been a potent factor in all early Japanese successes, and was proved again and again when the Pacific campaign began and Allied air power gradually reduced the Japanese and finally drove them from the skies.

The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway preceded the landings at Tulagi and on Guadalcanal and turned the tide in the Pacific. They decisively halted the Japanese drive south and restored the balance of sea power until it swung in favour of the Allies. The first, the battle of the Coral Sea, from 6 to 8 May 1942, turned back the Japanese Fourth Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Inouye, which was protecting a large convoy carrying a force commanded by Lieutenant-General Momotake intended for the assault on Port Moresby from the sea, and caused postponement of the projected attack on New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Not a single shot was exchanged between the surface ships of the opposing forces and, for the first time in history, a decisive naval battle was fought exclusively between carrier-borne and land-based aircraft. The Allied naval force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, included the Australian cruisers Australia and Hobart and the American carriers Lexington and Yorktown, with six heavy and light cruisers, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Astoria, Chester, Portland and Chicago, with their protective destroyer screens. They caught the Japanese force before it turned north in the Coral Sea and joined battle on 7 May. The Japanese aircraft carrier Ryukaku was sunk by aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown with the loss of only one American dive-bomber, and the Shokaku was put out of action the following day and withdrawn. Both the American page break
Colour Map of Solomon Islands

This Map shows 3 NZ Division's long lines of communication in the Solomons and the dates on which units of the Division landed on Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella, Mono and Nissan.

page break page 209 carriers were damaged, the Lexington so severely that she was abandoned and sunk by her own people. The United States destroyer Sims and a tanker and 66 aircraft were also lost during the battle, but the Japanese force was so severely mauled that it turned back to Rabaul with the invasion force. On 4 May, before this action began, the Yorktown's aircraft inflicted severe and unexpected damage on 19 Japanese Seaplane Tender Division which had occupied Tulagi and Gavutu, off Florida Island, to protect the flank and assist with the assault on Port Moresby.1

A lull followed the Coral Sea battle, and American carriers and supporting craft were recalled from the South Pacific in readiness for another move. Naval patrols were established to the west of Midway Island, which lies north-west of the Hawaii Group, as American intelligence, obtained from such a reliable source as decoded Japanese naval signals, estimated that an attack was imminent against that island outpost. The total United States forces available in the Central Pacific were three aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, Hornet (which was returning from a raid on Tokyo on 18 April), and Yorktown (which had been patched up after the Coral Sea battle), seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, 14 destroyers and 20 submarines, divided into two task forces under Fletcher and Rear-Admiral R. A. Spruance. The Japanese Combined Fleet, under Admiral Yamamoto, was sighted on the morning of 3 June, some hundreds of miles south-west of Midway, moving east. Its arrival within reach of Midway was co-ordinated with a Japanese move into the Aleutians, where enemy forces landed on Kiska and Attu that same day. In the afternoon of 3 June Yamamoto's fleet was attacked by heavy bombers from Hawaii which inflicted the initial damage. The following morning two enemy carriers and the main force were picked up and attacked by aircraft from the Midway garrison. The United States fleet's carriers then entered the battle with conspicuous success but great loss. A torpedo squadron from the Hornet, without protection, attacked the four Japanese carriers. Every aircraft was shot down and only one American pilot survived. Torpedo squadrons from the Enterprise and the Yorktown then attacked, losing heavily but registering hits on the Japanese carriers. By the end of the day two Japanese carriers were on fire and out of action, a third damaged and later sunk page 210 by submarine, and a Japanese battleship and cruiser badly damaged. A furious air battle continued throughout 5 June, during which American aviators maintained their initiative, but poor visibility prevented conclusive action. On 6 June aircraft from the Hornet sought out units of the dispersing Japanese fleet, scoring hits on cruisers and destroyers. The remainder, denuded of their air support, scattered and fled.

The Japanese had suffered their first decisive naval defeat since 1592, when a Korean admiral routed a Japanese fleet under Hideyoshi. At Midway they lost four aircraft carriers—the Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga and Soryu; the heavy cruiser Mikuma and two battleships, four cruisers, and three destroyers were damaged. The American forces also lost heavily in men and aircraft. The Yorktown was hit by two torpedoes on 5 June and sank the following day, and the destroyer Hammann, which had gone alongside to assist the aircraft carrier, was also torpedoed and sunk. Other vessels were damaged.

The Battle of Midway was one of the decisive battles in the Pacific war and one of the great naval battles of history. It removed the threat to Hawaii and confined future naval operations to the South Pacific; it caused the cancellation of the Japanese move to secure island bases in New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, and it forced the Japanese to waste their strength on two land battles—an attempt to take Port Moresby by crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges and the reckless and disastrous attempt to reinforce and hold Guadalcanal. The Japanese never regained the initiative after the Battle of Midway, and their superiority in the air began to wane from that time. But it was the loss of naval craft, aircraft, and men in the futile attempt to drive the Americans from Guadalcanal which lost them the Solomons and finally, with their equally wasteful battle to hold New Guinea, Rabaul. Despite the fanatical bravery of her fighting men, the Japanese High Command was outmanœuvred by superior strategy, aided by those twin scourges, malaria and dysentery. Guadalcanal is a horrible example of the wanton disregard of the Japanese for human life, and adherence to an ideal, based on Emperor worship, of implicit obedience to authority in the face of overwhelming adversity.

There is no evidence to prove that Japan ever intended to invade either New Zealand or the mainland of Australia, though her plans did include an enforced acceptance of her predominant direction and role in all Pacific affairs. Before General Tojo went to his death on 23 December 1948 at the conclusion of the International War Trials in Tokyo, quite happily and in the page 211 belief that he would be the future hero of Japan, he gave a final interview at Sugamo prison, where he was confined during the trials. Typed copies of this interview were afterwards submitted to Tojo and his solicitor, Mr. George Blewett, an American who had defended him, and approved by them both. In answer to specific questions regarding Japanese policy and any contemplated invasion of New Zealand and Australia, Tojo replied: ‘We never had enough troops to do so. We had already far out-stretched our lines of communication. We did not have the armed strength or the supply facilities to mount such a terrific extension of our already over-strained and too thinly spread forces. We expected to occupy all New Guinea, to maintain Rabaul as a holding base, and to raid Northern Australia by air. But actual physical invasion—no, at no time.’ Tojo also expressed the opinion that politically Japan lost the war on Guadalcanal, but that he had his first doubts about its outcome after the Battle of Midway. This is supported by extracts from a report in September 1943 by Imperial General Headquarters on the progress of the war after the failure of Japanese arms to retake Guadalcanal:

The fighting power of our naval and air forces had been whittled away in successive operations, particularly at Midway, and recovery was painfully slow. Enemy submarines were a menace to our sea lanes; our shipping losses mounted so that new construction could not match losses. We found it increasingly difficult to provide our vast operational areas with the desired quantities of supplies. Like it or not, our forces, their initiative lost, were now forced into a defensive position. We maintained a longer fighting front than our national resources could justify.

1 Most of the damage to Japanese surface craft was done beyond the waters of the Coral Sea. On 4 May two destroyers, three transports, four gunboats, one light cruiser, and various small craft like launches were sunk at Tulagi, and one destroyer and one heavy cruiser damaged there. Near Misima, an island of the Louisiade Archipelago, the carrier Ryukaku and one light cruiser were sunk on 7 May. On 8 May, in the Coral Sea, the carrier Shokaku was severely damaged, the carrier Zuikaku lightly damaged, and 87 aircraft destroyed.