BATTLE OF THE BISMARCK SEA

The links below are for Videos made from original footage taken during and after the battle. The videos take about 50 seconds to start so do not worry. Below is the address by Dr Alan Stephens at the 60th anniversary of the battle which describes the battle and the context in which it was fought.

    

      Battle of the Bismarck Sea Video     

 

Australian Defence and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea  

Dr Alan Stephens  

Thank you for the welcome. I’m honoured to be invited to address this meeting of the RAAF Beaufighter Association, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. I want to talk briefly this afternoon about the historical context of that epic battle that took place only 800 kilometres off Australia’s northern shore. In recent years a good deal of attention has focussed on the Battle for Australia, something which, in my opinion, has been long overdue. As a historian, I’ve found one of the more interesting aspects of this new-found attention to be the accompanying debate about which battles have been the most significant in Australian history: which military actions have contributed most to our national security and to our national identity.   

Without exception, the discussions I’ve heard have dealt only with land actions; in particular, with Gallipoli, Tobruk, El Alamein, Milne Bay, and the Kokoda Trail. For what it’s worth, military historians almost invariably assert that, in terms of defending our homeland, Kokoda was the crucial event. Rarely, if ever, do air or maritime campaigns enter the discussion. There are understandable, if not entirely satisfactory, explanations for that, almost all of them based on the concept of identity rather than on the reality of national security. Foremost among these explanations is the work of Charles Bean, chronicler of the 1st AIF and our first and greatest military historian, in purposefully establishing the legend of Anzac, Gallipoli, and the digger at the very pinnacle of Australian self-identity. My purpose here is not to criticise Bean, but simply to note an historical fact.  

If we were to use homeland defence as the main criterion for an assessment of critical Australian military actions, then, I’d suggest, we’d arrive at a very different list, on which only Kokoda would remain. At this stage I’d like to move forward chronologically to the 1970s, when British forces were withdrawn from east of Suez, and American president Richard Nixon announced that in future the United States’ allies would have to take more responsibility for their regional security. For the first time, Australian defence planners had to develop an alternative strategy to the notion of forward defence – that is, an alternative to the notion of underwriting our security by sending expeditionary forces overseas to fight alongside our major allies. Specifically, in these new circumstances, a concept to defend Australia using Australian forces was needed.  

Senior ministers responsible for national security in 1973 were alarmed to discover that there’d never been a detailed government study of the specific requirements for defending continental Australia. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (a former wartime RAAF navigator) and his cabinet found themselves confronted by a series of troublesome questions. How far did this notion of self-reliance extend? Under what circumstances could Australia rely on the United States to come to our assistance? Should Australia adopt a maritime or a continental strategy? Was there a place for radical concepts like nuclear deterrence and mass civil resistance?  

The Air Force was one of a number of organisations which applied themselves to the problem. It was noteworthy that the RAAF started its study with the enduring determinants of Australia’s strategic circumstances: namely, geography, population, infrastructure and the economy. The RAAF eventually concluded that the best answer would be an ‘anti-lodgment’ strategy based on defending Australia in its natural defensive barrier, the air-sea gap that surrounds our island continent.  

Under the anti-lodgment strategy, enemies would be defeated in the first instance in their mounting and staging bases; or, failing that, during their transit of the air/sea gap. The strategy therefore placed a premium on air power. After a great deal of procrastination by successive governments, in 1987 Australia finally endorsed a defence white paper which fully addressed the strategic shocks of the early-1970s. The centre-piece of that document, titled The Defence of Australia 1987, was a strategy defined as ‘defence-in-depth’, which reflected the RAAF’s concept of defending Australia primarily in the air/sea gap. Then-Defence Minister Kim Beazley acknowledged the Air Force’s key role in both the planning and operational components of the strategy by stating that air power, ‘defined in the broadest sense’, could provide the strategic and technological solution which Australia’s circumstances demanded.  

The 1987 white paper is regarded by many analysts as one of the most significant policy documents in Australian defence history. There’s no doubt that the paper formalised an extremely important shift in our strategic thinking. But as it happens, the paper was neither intellectually nor operationally original. In order to explain the intellectual component, I want to make another chronological leap, this time back to the 1920s.  

In 1925 the RAAF’s first and greatest chief of staff, then-Group Captain Richard Williams, was deeply disturbed by our government’s lack of interest in air power, and by their reliance on the far-distant British Royal Navy as our first line of defence. Consequently Williams drafted a detailed concept of operations for the defence of Australia by Australians. Williams argued that the lack of support for the Air Force was inconsistent with modern theories of warfare, which postulated that the aeroplane would decide future conflicts. In a passage which drew on the inherent qualities of air power, he pointed to his service’s unique ability to ‘pass over defences, armies and fleets and [to] penetrate into those portions of a country and attack [targets] which previously had been immune’.  

While geography and the modest range of existing aircraft made the contemporary European strategy of bombing an enemy’s homeland impracticable for Australia, air power could still provide the key to national security by controlling the sea lines of communication. In a neat argument, Williams suggested that the main justification for maintaining an army and navy was to prevent an enemy from occupying Australia, yet that was an outlook which more than any other demanded the use of aircraft. Command of the sea was a prerequisite for an invasion. Given Australia’s defensive problems of immense distance, small population and limited infrastructure, the other two services could never be expected to provide the necessary level of security against invasion (a judgment which was implicitly recognised in the Singapore strategy). Aircraft, with their speed, range, and reconnaissance and striking power, were the obvious answer. It was also reasonable to assume, Williams continued, that no enemy could expect to secure a lodgment on the continent without first establishing air superiority, and fighter aircraft were the best means of defence against air attack.   

There was no prevarication about which country might threaten Australia. In calculating the numbers of aircraft the RAAF would need, Williams based his figures on Japan’s naval air capabilities. He estimated that by 1928 the Japanese would be able to deploy about 150 aircraft in a naval invasion force. To counter that threat, Williams proposed a force structure of thirty squadrons. Special emphasis was placed on the attack force, which he described as the component most relevant to Australia’s needs, and which would include 128 aircraft suitable for maritime strike operations. Because aircraft were able to strike harder, faster, and at greater distances than any other weapon system for the same cost, a well-equipped and well-trained strike force would attack the enemy at sea ‘long before he reaches the coast’. Williams’ plan was ignored by the government, and the RAAF continued to struggle along with inadequate funding.  

Fifteen years later, when the Royal Navy found itself unable to send sufficient forces to Singapore to implement the Imperial Defence strategy and to counter Japanese aggression, the RAAF was ordered to deploy three squadrons to bolster the island fortress. Williams would have been justified had he permitted himself a grim smile of self-righteousness. And as I’ve already mentioned, remarkably, the concept of operations he proposed in 1925 became the basis of Australia’s official defence strategy in 1987. A concept is, of course, one thing; turning it reality another. So, let me now turn to the practical component – the practical demonstration - of what I choose to call the Williams plan for the defence of Australia. Three operations from World War II illustrate the point: the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Bismarck Sea.  

The battle of the Coral Sea was decided on 7/8 May 1942 when an American task force intercepted a Japanese invasion force sailing for Port Moresby. Both fleets included aircraft carriers. In the context of the defence of Australia, the crucial point about the battle of the Coral Sea is that, in effect, a portion of our air/sea gap was successfully defended against a powerful attacking force by air power. For the first time in history, a major air/sea battle was fought without surface ships ever coming within sight of each other. Nor did they exchange fire, as all offensive action was carried out by aircraft at distances in excess of 150 kilometres from their carriers. Indeed, in theory, the American aircraft carriers need not even have been involved. If the RAAF had been properly equipped, there was no reason why the allied attacks couldn’t have been mounted by land-based aircraft operating from North Queensland, New Guinea, and Noumea. In fact some 100 strike sorties were flown by land-based American B-17s, B-25s and B-26s, and by RAAF Hudsons.  

Coral Sea proved to be a rehearsal for the battle of Midway a month later and some 4000 kilometres northeast. Again, carrier-based aircraft were the sole attacking force, and capital ships the target. By sinking four carriers within hours, the American aircrews effectively made it impossible for Japan to win the war. From then on, the Japanese preponderance in battleships and cruisers meant little. In the context of the defence of Australia, armies that can’t get to the fight also mean little. Which leads me to the battle of the Bismarck Sea, fought just off the northeast coast of New Guinea sixty years ago this week.  

Bismarck Sea was one of World War II’s great historical moments – a land battle fought at sea and won from the air. The Japanese attempt to land about 6400 urgently-needed reinforcements at their garrison at Lae using a convoy of eight troop transports protected by eight destroyers and land-based fighters turned into an utter disaster. A masterfully planned and executed attack by land-based RAAF and USAAF aircraft sank four of the destroyers and all eight of the transports in the air/sea gap near Lae. At least 3000 enemy soldiers were killed. Like Coral Sea and Midway before it, the battle of the Bismarck Sea provided a powerful demonstration of defending an air/sea gap with air power. Not only were Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea smashed, but, more importantly, any possibility that Australia might be invaded was eliminated.  

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea stands as one of the most stunning victories won in any theatre in World War II, and as a crucial episode in the Battle for Australia. Furthermore, perhaps to a greater degree than any other action in which Australians have fought, it provided a realistic template for our national defence, a template that endured for almost half a century. In short, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was one of the most significant military engagements in Australian history. It’s been a privilege for me to address the RAAF Beaufighter Association on the 60th anniversary of that decisive engagement.

 

Thank you.