Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume III
406 — Letter from Major-General Barrowclough to the Prime Minister — Report on Operations—3 NZ Division, August 1943–December 1943
Letter from Major-General Barrowclough to the Prime Minister
Report on Operations—3 NZ Division, August 1943–December 1943
I have the honour to submit for your information a report on the operations of my Division during the period August, 1943, to December, 1943. I select this period because it was in August that the Division began its move forward from New Caledonia and the month of December marked not only the end of the year but the end of our first campaign.
You will recollect that, as a result of the Dominion's commitments elsewhere, it was necessary to adopt some very radical changes in the composition and organisation of 3 NZ Division. One Brigade—the 15th—had to be disbanded and a similar fate befell the 33rd Heavy Regiment and the 28th Heavy AA Regiment. The troops released from these disbanded units were utilised to fill the somewhat depleted ranks of the remaining formations and to constitute a reserve of reinforcements for the whole Force. In addition we had to find out of the Division some 400 men for the RNZAF. It was unfortunate that these very drastic changes had to be effected just on the eve of our moving into an active theatre, but I am happy to report that they were adopted with commendable speed and with the greatest possible co-operation on the part of all concerned. I wish to take this opportunity of placing on record my great indebtedness to officers and men who so cheerfully relinquished appointments for which they were fully qualified by their military experience and who continued to give the same loyal service in less influential spheres.
Early in August I had received orders to concentrate the Division in Guadalcanal in readiness for its active employment in the Solomons Islands. The Division moved in three echelons—the first was commanded by Brigadier Potter and comprised the 14th NZ Infantry Brigade and attached troops. It sailed from Noumea on 15 August and landed on Guadalcanal on 27 August. The second echelon consisted of miscellaneous Divisional troops and was commanded by Brigadier Goss. It sailed on 24 August and landed in Guadalcanal on 3 September. The third echelon was commanded by Brigadier Row, DSO, and consisted chiefly of his Brigade (8 NZ Infantry Brigade) and attached troops. Leaving Noumea on 2 September it arrived in Guadalcanal on 14 September. All three echelons called at Efate on the way and spent about a week there in practising amphibious operations. The landings at Guadalcanal were made by assault landing page 417 craft on open beaches in the same manner as landings are made on a hostile shore and were the culmination of our period of amphibious training. Immodest though it may appear I cannot help recording that in these landings 3 NZ Division established a record for speed and efficiency which exceeded the best performances of any other Division (US Marine Divisions not excluded) in the same operation.
Shortly afterwards the Division was joined by the Tank Squadron, 26th Field Company and 24th Field Ambulance. These last mentioned units had not served with the Division in New Caledonia and proceeded direct from New Zealand to Guadalcanal.
The 14th Brigade had scarcely landed in Guadalcanal when I received word that it was desired to employ it in operations in Vella Lavella and that General Harmon wished me to proceed there with such staff as might be required and take over the command of that island, including command of such United States troops as might then or thereafter be stationed there. I was also informed that at a somewhat later stage the 8th Brigade would be required for an operation in the Treasury Islands. I could not accept any of these proposals with any degree of complacency for it meant that my small Division was immediately being split up into three separate groups—one in Guadalcanal, one in Vella Lavella and one in the Treasury Islands. I could see at once the burden this arrangement would place on my administrative machinery and the difficulty, almost amounting to impossibility, of exercising command over so dispersed a force with the staff and signals at my disposal. After very careful consideration, however, I came to the conclusion that the difficulties were not so insuperable as to justify my making any suggestion that the tasks should be entrusted to any other formation. Plans were accordingly made to enable the 14th Brigade Group to embark on its first operational mission on 16 September 1943.
The tactical situation at that time can be briefly summarised as follows. United States troops were in possession of Munda Airfield and the whole of New Georgia Island but they were still in action against Japanese forces holding the two islands lying off the North West corner of New Georgia. The Japanese were in possession of Kolumbangara in strength—some estimates went as high as 10,000 men. The Japanese were also in possession of the northern and greater portion of Vella Lavella though United States troops had effected a landing on the southern narrow tip of that island. The Japs held the Treasury Islands, Choiseul Island and Bougainville Island.
It is necessary to give a more detailed description of the situation in Vella Lavella. Up till August the Japanese had occupied only the North Western portion of the Island and had used it as a barge station in their supply line to New Georgia. On 14 August a similar page 418 barge station was established at Horanui on the North Eastern coast of the Island. There were no enemy troops south of that position. On 15 August United States troops landed unopposed at Biloa on the southern tip of the Island. These American forces established a perimeter defensive line within which they immediately began the construction of what later came to be known as the Barakoma airfield. These operations were not hampered by any ground action on the part of the enemy though in the early stages there had been some bombing of the airfield site by enemy aircraft. United States troops then moved up the East coast and made their first contact with the enemy on 2 September but only patrol activity ensued. On 11 and 12 September US forces shelled the enemy positions, causing his force to withdraw. On 14 September US infantry found the positions deserted and they therefore occupied the area but lost all touch with the retiring enemy. The only reports we had as to his movements were those supplied by natives who furnished regular and most useful information through the coast watching organisation which had been on the island all through the Japanese occupation of it. About the same time US troops were advancing up the West coast of Vella Lavella and had reached Nyanga plantation without making any contact. The Japs were still in the Northern portion of the Island.
This was the local situation in Vella Lavella when the 14th NZ Infantry Brigade landed on 18 September accompanied by a skeleton Divisional staff. My instructions were to eliminate all Japanese forces on the Island so that we could proceed with the erection of Radars on the North East and North West coasts and the establishment of a motor torpedo-boat base on the North East coast in the vicinity of Horanui. The early installation of these Radars was of primary importance as they would become the most important air warning devices in the South Pacific area commanding the approaches from the enemy air bases in New Britain and Bougainville. Plans were accordingly made for the immediate employment of 14 NZ Brigade and its supporting arms in fulfilment of this task.
Precise information as to the strength of the Japanese Force is not available but from captured documents disclosing the identity of the troops employed it is calculated that they numbered about 600 men. This calculation was confirmed by estimates made by 14 NZ Infantry Brigade whilst they were in contact with the enemy. It was obvious from the US troops' experience that the enemy was anxious to avoid battle and native scouts reported that he was concentrating all his force in the extreme North and North Western fringe of the Island. It was obvious that an advance up one side of the island would result only in the enemy's steady withdrawal before our troops and a long and perhaps never ending chase. Brigadier Potter therefore decided to move page 419 one force up one coast and another up the other coast with the object of forcing the enemy to give battle when he was caught between the pincers of our converging movement. Each force comprised one infantry battalion with a battery of 25-pdr artillery and anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery, the latter being taken primarily to engage enemy barges in the event of his trying to reinforce his forces on the Island. Engineer and other supporting arms also accompanied each force.
This manoeuvre had one disadvantage. The enemy would be in a position to meet and engage each battalion in turn instead of meeting their joint attack. The infantry strength of one battalion was not very different from the infantry strength the enemy could muster. The presence of artillery with each battalion gave us, however, a superior strength in each arm of our pincer movement. The Brigadier very properly decided that he could afford to split his force and that such a measure was indeed essential if he was to force his enemy into battle.
The plan having been made it was speedily put into operation. Owing to the complete absence of roads and tracks and the paramount need for speed in the operation the ‘advance to contact’ was very largely an amphibious operation. Reconnoitring parties were landed well to the North of the areas occupied by the American troops and as they reported the area free from the enemy the remainder of the troops and their equipment and supplies were ferried up in the small barges and landing craft with which we had now become so familiar.
Patrols moved overland from one bay or cove to the next, and as each in turn was reported clear the balance of the force moved up by barge and landing craft. Enemy patrols were encountered and some sharp, if minor, actions ensued. It soon became evident that the enemy was concentrating his force in the vicinity of Warambari, Marquana and Timbala Bays on the North West coast of the Island. It also became evident that in this area the Jap was prepared to offer a stubborn and determined resistance. He was hoping to be evacuated by sea and had reached the area to which he expected the evacuating boats to come. He could not afford to be driven out of that area and he was prepared to defend it ‘to the death’, to use the phrase which often appears in his orders.
The 35th Battalion with its supporting arms was the first to make contact with the main forces of the enemy. There followed a bitterly contested struggle in which our troops had the disadvantage that as we were the attackers and necessarily on the move, the enemy could always see and open fire on us long before we could see and open fire on them. Of necessity we were always being subject to an ambush. This situation, though it slowed down, did not prevent our advance and we had the advantage of artillery which the enemy did not.
This is not the place to give in detail the progress of the battle. It is sufficient to say that with the closest possible co-operation of both page 420 artillery and infantry each enemy strong point and defended locality was located, heavily shelled, and then assaulted by our infantry. Position after position was eliminated and the garrisons were literally destroyed. Meanwhile the 37th Battalion with its supporting arms had worked its way round the Northern coast of the Island. It had a greater distance to travel but eventually it began against enemy positions in the North an operation similar to that which the 35th Battalion had been conducting from the South. The complete destruction of the enemy forces seemed inevitable but a convoy of enemy barges managed to elude our naval forces and to evacuate the survivors. It seems likely, however, that many of those who escaped us in Vella were subsequently destroyed by US Naval forces whilst at sea. By 9 October all enemy resistance had ceased and the island was entirely in our hands.
Whilst these operations were in progress in the Northern end of the island we were not altogether free from enemy interference on the South Eastern coast where the troops were engaged in various administrative tasks such as constructing roads and bridges and in unloading many thousands of tons of ammunition and supplies of all descriptions. These operations did not escape the attention of the Japanese Air Force and we suffered some casualties from enemy bombings, particularly in attacks on ships which were unloading on the various beaches.
The whole operation cost us 47 killed and 36 wounded. A conservative estimate of enemy casualties was 200 killed. We had no means of estimating the number of enemy wounded though they must have been considerable, and as stated above it is thought that some of the enemy troops who were evacuated were subsequently destroyed at sea. From mid-October onwards the troops in Vella found themselves performing merely a garrison role.
I was now free to devote attention to the pending operation by 8 Brigade and attached troops, an operation in respect of which I had received some warning before I left Guadalcanal. I therefore flew back immediately to Guadalcanal to discuss the plans with Brigadier Row and Admirals Wilkinson and Fort.1 The Treasury Islands operation was timed to begin on 27 October. The tactical situation had changed from what it was when the Vella campaign began. The enemy had been driven from Vella and the islands of the New Georgia Group. He had vacated Kolumbangara. On the other hand his troops in Choiseul Island had been increased by a number of refugees from Vella and Kolumbangara. There was evidence that he had slightly strengthened his garrison on Treasury Islands and of course he was in very considerable strength on Southern Bougainville.
1 Rear-Admiral G. H. Fort, USN.
The administrative problem involved in planning and loading and embarkation of troops, supplies and equipment and their unloading and disembarkation on very limited beaches and with the barest possible information of the hydrographic conditions prevailing there.
The danger of counter-attack from the very strong garrison stationed in South Bougainville and the islands lying off that coast.
The first problem caused me personally no concern at all. I was thoroughly confident of the ability of the Commander 8 Brigade and his staff to deal with the great mass of detailed work involved in that phase of the operation. Nor was my confidence in any way misplaced as subsequent events will show. The planning of the operation was carried through in a manner that would have done credit to any staff. I was, however, very deeply concerned at the prospect of the enemy capabilities once the fact that we had landed became known to the Japanese Higher Command. Official estimates of the Japanese strength in Southern Bougainville and in the adjoining islands of Shortland and Ballale varied from 24,000 to 26,000. Treasury Islands were separated from Shortland Island by only 17 miles of sea. There were immediately available to the Japanese sufficient barges to transport in a single night as many as 3000 to 4000 lightly armed troops. Had those troops been landed on Treasury Islands 8 Brigade would have had a grim struggle. The only reserves at my disposal were the troops of the 14th Brigade then in Vella some 75 miles away and the Tank Squadron and the 144th Independent Battery almost 350 miles away in Guadalcanal. It was true that once the US troops landed at Empress Augusta Bay that was likely to draw Japanese attention from the Treasury Islands, but that new threat would not be apparent till at least five days later and much might happen in those five days.
1 Patrol torpedo-boats.
The potentialities we envisaged proved to be no more than potentialities. They never materialised. The Japanese reaction to this further invasion of his territory was surprisingly supine. He completely abandoned his garrison to its fate and made no attempt either to reinforce or to evacuate it. His response in the air was equally weak and ineffective. In the events that happened the 8th Brigade operation proved an easy and an inexpensive affair and was an unqualified success. There was of course some fighting and some of it was of a desperate nature; but in every case the troops exhibited a courage and devotion to duty that cast not the smallest shadow on the bright escutcheon of their country's military history. It is now my duty to give a brief summary of the nature of that fighting.
Shortly prior to the landing Sergeant Cowan, the Brigade Intelligence Sergeant, led two separate patrols on to the islands with the object of gaining information and of establishing contact with friendly natives there. These expeditions were as useful as they were hazardous and reflected the greatest credit on the Sergeant and those who accompanied him. I am glad to report that Sergeant Cowan has since received a well merited DCM for his leadership and gallant conduct.
The landing on 27 October was effected simultaneously on both the major islands of the Treasury Group. The largest island—Mono Island—is elliptical in shape, with major and minor axes of 6 and 5 miles respectively. Practically the whole enemy garrison was stationed there. The second largest island—Stirling Island—is situated just south of Mono Island and separated from it by a strait varying in width from 1 mile to 2 miles. It was not thought to be, and was not in fact, defended except for a small detachment which opened fire with a machine gun for a short period only. The advantage of landing on Stirling Island was that it provided good positions for Field and Anti-aircraft artillery and was moreover the site thought most suitable for the construction of an air strip. The main landing on Mono Island was effected at Falamai in the centre of the southern coast of that island. There was a good sandy beach there though it was very limited in extent. The remainder of the coast line of Mono Island consisted of steep coral cliffs some 30 ft high, with the exception of a small beach at Malsi and an infinitely smaller one at Soanatalu.
The beach at Falamai had been subjected to a preliminary shelling by naval guns and this fire caused elements of the enemy to withdraw into the jungle. Naval gun fire is never most effective against such a target and on this occasion there was no exception to the rule. The page 423 29th and 36th Battalions met with some opposition from the beach, but this they quickly overran with minor casualties and unloading operations were commenced inside the hastily established perimeter. About an hour later the beach was shelled by enemy mortars and some mountain guns. Several direct hits on the larger landing craft caused casualties and the destruction of some stores and equipment. This fire was speedily ended by the action of 36 Battalion, which eventually captured a 90-mm mortar, two 37-mm dual purpose guns and two mountain guns. By nightfall unloading operations had been completed and the troops were established in defensive positions covering the beach. There were minor patrol clashes during the night.
Meanwhile the 34th Battalion less one company had effected an unopposed landing on Stirling Island and Field and Anti-aircraft artillery and a number of other troops and a great quantity of stores and equipment had been landed there. At the same time a Company of the 34th Battalion was sent by barge to Soanatalu on the northern coast of Mono Island with the object of establishing a radar in that vicinity. This Company effected its landing without opposition. At the end of the first day every task that had been allotted to 8 Brigade for that day was satisfactorily completed.
Subsequent operations in these islands were not less successful. The Jap garrison had shown a tendency to move across country to the northern shore of Mono Island. The going was exceedingly difficult, involving densely wooded country intersected by forbidding and precipitate ravines. The enemy was harassed and hurried on his way by a series of aggressive and vigorous patrols which hunted him with a remorseless resolution. We also landed at Malsi and established a position there. These tactics inevitably drove the enemy against the defended locality at Soanatalu, and caught between the hammer and the anvil the enemy showed the same desperate courage as he displayed in similar circumstances in Vella Lavella. Shortly after midnight on the night 1/2 November the Japanese made a terrific attack on our small garrison at Soanatalu. For five hours a desperate struggle took place in the black darkness of the jungle. It was essentially a soldiers' battle, each man fighting individually against his individual assailant. The men of the 34th Battalion acquitted themselves as courageously and as skilfully as their comrades of the 29th and 36th and when dawn broke they had beaten off the attack with very severe casualties to the enemy and relatively light casualties in their own ranks. That was the last major encounter in the island—though for weeks afterwards small isolated parties of Japanese were being rounded up and killed and a few were taken prisoner. As a result of these operations the whole Japanese force of some 300 men has been destroyed. With the exception of about half a dozen prisoners page 424 they have all been killed. Our casualties amounted to 39 killed and 146 wounded.
The 8th Brigade was accompanied in this venture by a number of American technical and service troops and by a large anti-aircraft artillery detachment. American motor torpedo-boats were also stationed at the islands and were available to assist in the event of any counter-invasion being attempted by the Japanese. An account of their activities is outside the scope of this report; but it is proper to say, and I have great pleasure in saying, that throughout the whole operation the greatest friendship and cordiality existed between the American troops and ourselves. The spirit of willing and complete co-operation was everywhere in evidence.
At the time of writing this report (late December, 1943) both Treasury and Vella have long ceased to be the scene of active operations. During the Christmas and New Year period both garrisons have been able to relax and indulge in a carnival of sporting and aquatic events which is so characteristic of the New Zealand soldier and which is so beneficial to his morale. It is a significant indication of Japanese impotence in this area that 8 Brigade were able to stage an elaborate aquatic sports meeting only 17 miles distant from Japanese held Shortland Island and only 25 miles distant from his airfields at Kahili and Kara.
I do not wish, Mr Prime Minister, to overestimate the importance or the nature of these operations. They were relatively minor actions so far as this Division is concerned, and indeed a proportion of the Divisional troops were not engaged at all. But I know your personal interest in the fortunes of this Force which has for so long held a Cinderella and somewhat inglorious role. I have therefore been persuaded to describe this minor campaign in more detail and at greater length than would have been appropriate had I had other conquests to relate as having taken place during the period under review. I feel confident that your interest in our welfare will preclude any possibility of your being wearied by its length or of your patience being exhausted by some further references which I feel I ought to make.
No account of our activities in the forward area would be complete without my paying grateful homage to the tremendous courtesy and consideration shown to me and to all of us by the United States Officers with whom our duties have brought us in contact. Without a single exception all our relations with them have been of the friendliest possible nature. On every occasion they have treated us in all respects as if we were one of their own Divisions. I very humbly hope that they have had occasion to find us equally helpful and equally co-operative. It seems invidious to mention any one of the numerous American Officers who have befriended us but I feel compelled to bring to your page 425 especial notice the outstanding and very valuable assistance we have always had from Major-General Breene1 of the Services of Supply in the South Pacific Area. If you thought fit to make representations which might result in this officer receiving some suitable British decoration, I think it would be a very appropriate recognition of his services.
I have already submitted through you certain recommendations for immediate awards which later were approved by His Excellency the Governor General on behalf of His Majesty the King. During his visit to the Division His Excellency was able to present the ribbons of these decorations to some of those to whom they had been awarded. I am forwarding in a separate document the names of certain officers and men whose conduct has been of exceptional merit and whose work I commend to you as entitling them to the distinction of a ‘Mention in Dispatches’. I very gratefully record my deep indebtedness to the Brigadiers and other Commanders of all formations and units in the Force, to their Staffs, to my own Staff and the Heads of my various Services, and also to the Brigadier commanding the Base and all concerned in the extremely arduous tasks that have been performed by the various Base units. But especially do I wish to record my great admiration for and my unbounded pride in the work of the regimental officers and the rank and file of my command. It is they who bear the real heat and burden of the day—they who face the greatest hardships and the thousand hidden perils of this jungle warfare. Without them our victory could never have been achieved. They never failed me once. It is indeed an honour to be associated with the men whom you have placed under my command.
(Sgd) H. E. Barrowclough,
GOC 3 NZ DIVISION