Battle of Rabaul (23 January – February 1942) Japanese victory
The Battle of Rabaul, known by the Japanese as Operation R, was fought on New Britain in January and February 1942. It was a strategically significant defeat of Allied forces by Japan in the Pacific campaign of World War II.
Following the capture of Rabaul, Japanese forces turned it into a major base and proceeded to invade mainland New Guinea, advancing toward Port Moresby. Hostilities on the neighbouring island of New Ireland are also usually considered to be part of the same battle.
Rabaul was important because of its proximity to the Japanese territory of the Caroline Islands, site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk.
Battle of Port Moresby (3 February 1942 – 17 August 1943) Allied victory
The Battle of Port Moresby was an aerial battle fought between aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy over Port Moresby.
At the start, the defenders consisted only of Australian Army anti-aircraft batteries and machine-guns but by late March had been strengthened by the arrival of Kittyhawk fighters from No 75 Squadron RAAF. However, in just nine days they lost 11 aircraft and only the arrival of replacements enabled the unit to maintain 10 serviceable machines.
According to the Australian government: "On 31 March, the Australians were joined by the American 8th Bombardment Squadron with A-24 bombers and for two weeks in May by six P-39 Airacobras of the American 36th Pursuit Squadron.
“Despite the American assistance, the daily air battles over and around Port Moresby by 1 May had reduced No 75 Squadron RAAF to just three airworthy machines. The American 35th, and the full 36th, Pursuit Squadrons arrived to relieve the Australian squadron. During their time in Port Moresby 75 Squadron had lost 21 aircraft and 12 pilots.
“The Battle of the Coral Sea, which was fought mostly in the waters south-east of Papua in early May, diverted a Japanese naval attack against Port Moresby and removed the immediate threat. However, by May 1942 the Japanese had established themselves in the arc of islands north and east of the island of New Guinea as well as in the region around Lae and Madang on the north coast of the mainland.”
Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942) Allied victory (although at a high cost)
The Battle of the Coral Sea was a major naval battle between the Imperial Japanese Navy and naval and air forces from the United States and Australia.
The battle is historically significant as the first action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other, as well as the first in which the opposing ships neither sighted nor fired directly upon one another.
In an attempt to strengthen their defensive position in the South Pacific, the Japanese decided to invade and occupy Port Moresby and Tulagi (south-eastern Solomon Islands).
The plan to accomplish this was called Operation MO, and involved several major units of Japan's Combined Fleet. These included two fleet carriers and a light carrier to provide air cover for the invasion forces. It was under the overall command of Japanese Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue.
The US learned of the Japanese plan through signals intelligence, and sent two United States Navy carrier task forces and a joint Australian-U.S. cruiser force to oppose the offensive. These were under the overall command of US Admiral Frank J Fletcher.
On 3–4 May, Japanese forces successfully invaded and occupied Tulagi, although several of their supporting warships were sunk or damaged in surprise attacks by aircraft from the U.S. fleet carrier Yorktown. Now aware of the presence of US carriers in the area, the Japanese fleet carriers advanced towards the Coral Sea with the intention of locating and destroying the Allied naval forces.
On the evening of 6 May, the direction chosen for air searches by the opposing commanders brought the two carrier forces to within 130 km of each other, unbeknownst to both sides. Beginning on 7 May, the carrier forces from the two sides engaged in airstrikes over two consecutive days.
On the first day, both forces mistakenly believed they were attacking their opponent's fleet carriers, but were actually attacking other units, with the US sinking the Japanese light carrier Shōhō while the Japanese sank a U.S. destroyer and heavily damaged a fleet oiler (which was later scuttled).
The next day, the fleet carriers found and engaged each other, with the Japanese fleet carrier Shōkaku heavily damaged, the US fleet carrier Lexington critically damaged (and later scuttled), and Yorktown damaged. With both sides having suffered heavy losses in aircraft and carriers damaged or sunk, the two forces disengaged and retired from the battle area. Because of the loss of carrier air cover, Inoue recalled the Port Moresby invasion fleet, intending to try again later.
Although a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk, the battle would prove to be a strategic victory for the Allies for several reasons. The battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies.
More importantly, the Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku—the former damaged and the latter with a depleted aircraft complement—were unable to participate in the Battle of Midway the following month, while Yorktown did participate, ensuring a rough parity in aircraft between the two adversaries and contributing significantly to the US victory in that battle.
The severe losses in carriers at Midway prevented the Japanese from reattempting to invade Port Moresby from the ocean and helped prompt their ill-fated land offensive over the Kokoda Track.
Two months later, the Allies took advantage of Japan's resulting strategic vulnerability in the South Pacific and launched the Guadalcanal Campaign; this, along with the New Guinea Campaign, eventually broke Japanese defences in the South Pacific and was a significant contributing factor to Japan's ultimate surrender in World War II.
Battle of Kokoda (July – August 1942) Japanese victory
Forming part of the Kokoda Track campaign, the battle involved military forces from Australia, supported by the United States, fighting against Japanese troops from Major General Tomitaro Horii's South Seas Detachment who had landed around Buna and Gona in mid-July 1942, with the intent of capturing Port Moresby to the south via the overland route.
The first engagement took place on 28–29 July 1942, and saw a company-sized element of Australians attempt to hold the village from the advanced elements of the Japanese landing force, which were advancing towards the entrance to the Owen Stanleys. In a short firefight, the Australian company was almost encircled before withdrawing.
The second engagement took place just over a week later between 8 and 10 August, during which a weakened Australian battalion launched an attack from Deniki, aimed at re-taking Kokoda. At the same time, the main Japanese force also launched an attack and the two sides clashed head on along the track.
Meanwhile, flanking attacks caught the Japanese force, which had also grown to around battalion strength, by surprise, and the Australians briefly took Kokoda and nearby Pirivi before being forced to withdraw to Deniki, which was the scene of further fighting prior to the Battle of Isurava.
As the Kokoda Track campaign continued, the Japanese pushed the Australians back towards Port Moresby, penetrating as far as Imita Ridge, until early October when the situation reversed and the Australians went on the offensive. As the Japanese withdrew north to assume defensive operations to consolidate their beachheads on the northern coast, the Australians subsequently re-took Kokoda in early November 1942.
First Battle of Eora Creek (31 August 1942 – 5 September 1942) Japanese advance
The First Battle of Eora Creek – Templeton's Crossing involved military forces from Australia, supported by the United States fighting against Japanese troops from Major General Tomitaro Horii's South Seas Detachment who had landed in Papua in mid-1942, with the intent of capturing Port Moresby.
The battle was one of three defensive actions fought by the Australians along the Kokoda Track. The fighting resulted in the delay of the Japanese advance south, which allowed the Australians to withdraw to Efogi. Eora Creek village and Templeton's Crossing was subsequently the site of a battle in late October 1942 as the Australian forces pursued the Japanese forces retiring back toward the north coast of Papua.
Battle of Ioribaiwa (14–16 September 1942) Allied withdrawal
The Battle of Ioribaiwa involved forces from Australia, the United States and Japan, the fighting centred on a high feature known as Ioribaiwa Ridge south of Ofi Creek on the Kokoda Track. It was the last of three defensive battles fought by the Australians along the Kokoda Track to halt the Japanese advance from the north coast of Papua towards Port Moresby.
Although the Japanese were successful in pushing the Australian defenders back in the centre of their position on the track, heavy fighting on the flanks of the position blunted the Japanese attack, bringing it to a standstill.
In the aftermath, the Australian commander, Brigadier Kenneth Eather, perceiving that the attack could not be held any further and that Ioribaiwa Ridge was unsuited to launching a counter-attack, withdrew his force back to Imita Ridge.
The Japanese, however, had reached the limit of their supply line and after the fighting around Ioribaiwa. Regardless, strategic factors and reverses elsewhere forced the Japanese commander, Major General Tomitaro Horii, to pursue a more defensive approach in Papua and New Guinea. As a result, in October the Japanese began to withdraw towards their beachheads Buna–Gona, with the Australians in pursuit.
Second Battle of Eora Creek (11–28 October 1942) Allied advance
The Second Battle of Eora Creek – Templeton's Crossing involved military forces from Australia, supported by the United States, fighting against Japanese troops from Major General Tomitaro Horii's South Seas Detachment who had landed in Papua in mid-1942 with the intent of capturing Port Moresby.
It formed part of the Australian pursuit of the Japanese towards the beachheads around Buna and Gona, following the abandonment of plans to capture Port Moresby. The Australians took heavy casualties as part of efforts to advance north to re-take Kokoda and then push on towards Oivi and Gorari in November.
Battle of Goodenough Island (22–27 October 1942) Australian victory
The Battle of Goodenough Island, also known as Operation Drake, saw the Allies attack the Kaigun Rikusentai (Special Naval Landing Force) stranded on Goodenough Island during the Battle of Milne Bay so as to deny the Japanese the ability to use the island prior to the Buna campaign.
Drake Force, consisting of the Australian 2/12th Battalion and attachments, landed on the southern tip of Goodenough at Mud Bay and Taleba Bay on 22 October and, following a short but heavy fight, the Japanese forces withdrew to Fergusson Island on 27 October. After the battle, Goodenough was developed by the Allies and became a major base which they used for further operations later in the war.
Battle of Oivi–Gorari (4–11 November 1942) Japanese withdrawal
The Battle of Oivi–Gorari was the final major battle of the Kokoda Track campaign before the Battle of Buna–Gona. Following the capture of Kokoda by Australian forces on 2 November, the Allies began flying in fresh supplies of ammunition and food to ease the supply problems that had slowed their advance north after the climactic battle around Ioribaiwa, coupled with reverses elsewhere, had stopped the Japanese advance on Port Moresby.
On 4 November, the Australians resumed their advance, pushing towards Oivi along the Kokoda–Sanananda Track. Around the high ground at Oivi, the lead Australian element, the 16th Brigade, came up against well entrenched Japanese defenders from the South Seas Detachment who were intent on stalling the Australian advance towards the sea.
Over the course of several days, determined resistance held off a number of frontal assaults, forcing the commander of the 7th Division, Major General George Vasey, to attempt a flanking move to the south.
A second brigade, the 25th Brigade, subsequently bypassed Oivi via a parallel track before turning north and attacking the depth position around Gorari. Heavy hand-to-hand fighting resulted in heavy casualties on both sides before the Japanese withdrew east and crossed the flood-swollen Kumusi River, where many drowned and a large quantity of artillery had to be abandoned.
Battle of Buna–Gona (16 November 1942 – 22 January 1943) Allied victory
On 16 November 1942, Australian and United States forces attacked the main Japanese beachheads in New Guinea at Buna, Sanananda and Gona. When the Japanese forces were within sight of Port Moresby, the Japanese leadership decided holding Guadalcanal was a higher priority, and they ordered their New Guinea forces to withdraw north-east to the coast.
Since arriving on the north coast in June, the Japanese had built hundreds of well-camouflaged, reinforced bunkers in mutually supporting positions blocking all available approaches. Combined with the forces who had returned from the Kokoda Track, the Japanese initially had nearly 5,500 seasoned troops on the northern coast. This rose to about 6,500 later in the battle.
Both the Japanese and Allied forces were riddled by disease and lacked the most basic supplies, including medicine and food. Some U.S. troops were reduced to a small portion of a C ration each day.
Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur and his staff received poor intelligence and vastly underestimated the number of defenders and the superior quality of the Japanese defensive system. MacArthur’s chief of staff Lt Gen Richard K Sutherland glibly referred to the Japanese fortifications as "hasty field entrenchments."
The Allies had only a few mortar pieces and ammunition was so limited it was rationed. The Allies lacked tank support, the navy ignored their requests for assistance, they initially had only a single artillery piece, and air support was only partially effective. When the Allies attacked on three fronts, they were immediately stymied by the excellent Japanese defensive position. The Allies suffered heavy casualties and gained virtually no ground.
MacArthur repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the US 32nd Infantry Division's inability to defeat the Japanese. On 29 November, after 13 days of poor results and high casualties, Lt Gen Eichelberger relieved Harding of command. Eichelberger assumed command and only then fully appreciated the difficulty faced by the Allies in overcoming the Japanese forces.
He learned that the majority of his troops had fevers and were sick with a variety of illnesses including malaria, dengue fever, bush typhus, and tropical dysentery. The Japanese received limited reinforcements and additional supplies until mid-December, when they were cut off. Although they had very limited food and no way to evacuate their sick and wounded, the Japanese resolutely continued the fight to the very end.
The Allied forces only made significant progress when they were finally given the tanks and artillery they had long sought. The first large supply ship, the Karsik, arrived at Oro Bay 11 December 1942 preceding the regular supply convoys of Operation Lilliput.
On 2 January, the Allies captured Buna, and on 22 January 1943, after prolonged intense fighting in extraordinarily difficult conditions, the Allied forces killed or captured almost the entire defending Japanese forces. Only a few hundred escaped to the north.
Casualties on both sides were extremely high. General Eichelberger later compared the casualty ratio to the American Civil War. As a percentage of casualties, killed or wounded in action at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal by a margin of three to one.