The most decisive aerial engagement.

General Douglas McCarthur, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific.

On 19 February 1943, Allied code breakers intercepted radio messages detailing the route of an enemy troop convoy from Rabaul. The convoy carried reinforcements for the Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea.

The Commander of the Allied Air Forces, General George C. Kenney, began preparing for a major assault.

Eight Japanese destroyers and eight troop transports, escorted by about 100 fighter aircraft, left from Rabaul's Simpson Harbour on 28 February. It was bound for Lae, with almost 7,000 troops embarked. The RAAF and USAAF bomber squadrons began a training programme that would ensure they were prepared for a successful air campaign against the Japanese fleet.

The combined Allied airforces numbered 154 fighters, 34 light bombers, 41 medium bombers and 39 heavy bombers.

Bad weather meant the Allies did not locate the Japanese convoy for a couple of days. On 1 March, a USAAF B-24 first reported sighting the convoy.

Preparations for battle began at dawn on 2 March, when a force of six RAAF A-20 Bostons attacked Lae to reduce its ability to provide support.

At about 10 am, a USAAF B-24 Liberator heavy bomber found the convoy. B-17 Flying Fortresses took off to attack the ships. During the day, groups of eight bombers took turns to attack the convoy.

The Allies destroyed eight Japanese fighters and damaged 13 more in the day's action. They sank three of the troop transport ships.

That night, Catalina flying boats from No. 11 Squadron RAAF shadowed the convoy.

On 3 March, eight Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron RAAF took off from Milne Bay. Bad weather meant they did not hit any targets.

After the weather cleared, the USAAF sent in more B-17s, which reached the convoy and bombed them from an altitude of 2,100 metres.

The fierce attack by American and Australian aircraft sank all eight of the Japanese transport vessels and four of the eight destroyers that made up the convoy.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a disaster for the Japanese. Of the almost 7,000 troops headed to New Guinea, only about 1,200 made it to Lae. About 2,890 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed. Others were rescued and returned to Rabaul.

The Allies lost 13 aircrew, ten in combat and three in an accident. Eight were wounded.

Damien Parer footage

Academy Award-winning cinematographer Damien Parer documented the battle.

He travelled in the cockpit of a Beaufighter, standing behind pilot Flight Lieutenant R. F (Torchy) Uren.

His footage was later published as The Bismarck Convoy Smashed.

At the time, Sydney Morning Herald reported, "The newsreel pictures... are among the most dramatic to be screened in Sydney. They offer a thrilling bird's-eye view of the bombing and machine-gunning of the Japanese convoy by Australian and American pilots. Many of the attacks were made by pilots flying above the enemy at only mast-high levels. The grim determination behind this great aerial attack is seen in more than one vivid scene. Less commentary would improve these newsreels."

Papua New Guinea
March 2 to March 4 1943
Image caption
Aerial photograph of American forces bombing a Japanese destroyer.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 128159. Photographer unknown.

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