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Fortress Rabaul

Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942 - April 1943, by Bruce Gamble

The dynamic campaign in the stock version of Silent Hunter 4 has a photographic reconnaissance mission at Rabaul. It requires you to sneak into Blanche Bay and photograph an aircraft carrier at anchor in Simpson Harbor. The easy part of the mission is photographing the carrier. The ridiculously hard part is not getting sunk by the alert enemy destroyers while you crawl silently into the bay beneath the surface in only 70 feet of water. Needless to say, Captain James Fife would never have sent one of his submarines into this deathtrap. His Brisbane-based submarines were put to better use in the Bismarck Sea to the north and in the Solomon Sea to the south. There they could intercept Rabaul-bound reinforcement and supply convoys from Truk and the Palaus, and raise havoc with similar supply efforts from Rabaul to outposts throughout the Solomon Islands.

Rabaul was the peacetime capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It fell to the Japanese on January 23, 1942. Geology made it a naturally fortified harbor. It is a large flooded volcanic caldera surrounded by steep walls rising to almost 2300 feet. Its geologic characteristics made it very difficult to attack ships in the harbor or fortifications near it by air with the technology available to the Allies at the beginning of World War II. The American high-altitude bombers did not experience much success early in the war. But, as Bruce Gamble writes in his book Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942 - April 1943, necessity drove innovation, and the Americans soon developed new aircraft and bombing techniques to use at Rabaul. One of the most effective was the low flying gunship, which proved to be deadly to ships at anchor in Simpson Harbor, and to antiaircraft batteries ashore and on warships, as well. Bombing techniques also improved. The first time skip bombing was used by U. S. pilots was at Rabaul. The low-level skip bombing technique proved to be very effective. Many Japanese vessels in the harbor were sunk. A side effect of these new innovations was to drive the Japanese underground. They built a network of caves and tunnels within the caldera's walls. But nothing could protect their shipping from the American bombers and fighters, or from the U. S. submarines prowling the sea lanes around them. The once impregnable fortress would be cutoff from resupply and reinforcement, and left to wither and grow weak.

The Japanese strategy had been to use Rabaul as its principal base for extending its dominance through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and Papua. But losses at the battles at Midway and the Coral Sea, as well as decisive defeats at Bona-Guna and Guadalcanal, put an end to their South Pacific offensive. The biggest problem for the Japanese war effort had been recognized by Isoroku Yamamoto before Pearl Harbor. It was America's huge industrial capacity and substantial human resources. As these two aspects awakened and geared up for the Americans, it was just a matter of time before the Rising Sun would set forever. In April 1943, when U. S. Navy code breakers learned that Yamamoto would be flying from Rabaul to Bougainville to conduct inspections and rally his troops, plans were made to intercept his flight and kill him. This was accomplished with dispatch and effectiveness, and was clearly another key turning point in the Pacific war. Bruce Gamble devotes an entire chapter to this event. For me it is a very revelational discussion. I was not aware of the bitterness and controversy that existed among the American pilots involved in the operation over who deserved the credit for delivering the fatal blow. There is not much team spirit evident in it. It is surprising to me the operation was so successful.

This book is very well written, thoroughly documented and researched, and a true page-turner. Its principal focus is the air war against the Japanese forces at Rabaul as conducted by American and Australian forces. I highly recommend it for anyone with a keen interest in the Southwest Pacific theater in World War II. The author also wrote Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul - Australia's Worst Military Disaster of World War II, which I am currently reading.