South Pacific Air War – Volumes 1 to 3 by Michael Claringbould & Peter Ingman – Book Review

This trilogy has been written by two highly acclaimed authors who have virtually ‘lived and breathed’ the history of aviation in the South West Pacific.

Kent Town, South Australia, Avonmore Books

The volumes are able to stand alone and read as individual works. Michael has been instrumental in locating downed aircraft and identifying lost crews of both sides of the conflict. Both authors have been involved in the recovery of aircraft subsequently restored to be placed in aviation museums.

The incredible detail of the day-by-day action over the six-month period has been compiled as a result of exhaustive research of war records from both sides – aircraft types, crews, altitude flown, munitions expended, damage sustained, lost aircraft and fate of crews. So intent on ‘getting it right’, the authors have included addendums in Volumes 2 and 3 to the previous volume.

The military build-up by all services of the belligerents has been thoroughly portrayed, and their subsequent activities run parallel to the air war through all three volumes. Excellent maps preface each volume, with black and white photographs of aircraft, their crews and ground locations generously interspersed in the text. Even more impressive is the full colour artwork of aircraft in combat and the aircraft profiles (three-way views) that include essential technical data and where they operated, and the side view of the markings of those involved are provided as appendices. The respective appendices listing aircraft losses and fatalities for each period provide a sobering view of the incredible attrition rates suffered by both sides. A bibliography and detailed index round out each volume.

While the attrition rates in both pilots and aircraft lost was fairly even, there could have been greater impact considering the forces involved. The effective numbers of aircraft over targets were often reduced by mechanical problems with the aircraft early in their missions. The fickleness of the weather in the region – whilst cloud cover saved many a pilot, it considerably reduced the number of aircraft reaching, and then seeing, the intended target. Condensation on the outside of cockpits of aircraft as the descended to bombing level rendered bomb sights ineffective.
The flight across the Owen Stanley Range saw too many pilots becoming lost and often resulting in fatally crashing in the inhospitable terrain. For the six-month period examined, the US were unaware of their aerial-delivered torpedoes having a major technical glitch that saw them running too deep to be effective.

The authors should be truly proud of their trilogy, and we their readers, should be most grateful for their research and first-class history of this most crucial period in Australia during World War II. A must–have asset for any library’s military history collection.

Volume 1: The Fall of Rabaul, December 1941-March 1942
Paperback 252 pages 1 Nov 2017 RRP $49.08

The untenable situation facing the Allies in remote Rabaul was exacerbated by a lack of capability of the few aircraft available and capacity to develop the airstrip. Anti-aircraft weapons arrived without sights, anti-tank weapons without ammunition, and a promised infantry brigade was offloaded in Port Moresby. On 20th January 100 Japanese aircraft from four carriers attacked the port and the scrambled Allied aircraft suffered heavy losses. Due to the local military commander having no authority over any civilian infrastructure, a 5100-ton Norwegian freighter that could have evacuated the bulk of the remaining civilian population spent days at the wharf loading a cargo of copra! It was sunk wharf side.

The Imperial Japanese Army arrived at Rabaul in nine army transport ships in the early hours of 20th January. The resident infantry battalion was in no position to offer great resistance and most headed for the jungle hoping to be rescued by coastal ships in the days ahead. The Japanese seized the airstrip at Gasmata (New Britain) on 9th February, while promised Kittyhawk aircraft for Port Moresby were delayed. On 20th February fifteen Japanese bombers from a Rabaul-launched attack on the carrier USS Lexington were shot down by the carrier’s Wildcat squadrons. Long-awaited Flying Fortresses arrived in Townsville as the Japanese secured both Lae and Salamaua.

Volume 2: The Struggle for Moresby March – April 1942
Paperback 232 pages 11 Jul 2019 RRP $52.33

Strikes on Lae and Salamaua by 52 aircraft from each US carrier (Lexington and Yorktown) inflicted severe damage to the Japanese Naval fleet, causing it to wait for its own carriers to arrive before resuming serious activity. In lieu, daily bombing raids were flown over Moresby by Zero-escorted bombers. Coast watcher warnings enabled Allied fighters to scramble, take on the aircraft and avoid destruction on the ground. Between December ’41 and mid-March ’42 hundreds of aircraft had arrived in Australia by sea, with considerable numbers lost in training accidents before RAAF 75 Squadron Kittyhawks eventually arrived in Port Moresby on 21st March.

Using several new-constructed airstrips in the environs of Port Moresby as a staging post, USAAF bombers flew from Townsville to attack Lae (one hour flying time across the Owen Stanley Range) and Rabaul. Both sides virtually fought to the point of exhaustion. Two squadrons of USAAF Air Cobras replaced the 75 Squadron Kittyhawks on 30th April.

Volume 3: Coral Sea & Aftermath May-June 1942
Paperback 248 pages 13 Nov 2019 RRP $56.06

In early May the Japanese had assembled a virtual armada for Operation MO to invade Port Moresby by sea. On 7th May the Allies were successful in sinking the light carrier Shoho while losing one destroyer and having their oiler USS Neosho severely disabled. Early on the 8th May both sides used carrier-borne aircraft to locate their opponent’s carriers. Both were successful and the Japanese had their aircraft aloft before the Allies.

The carrier USS Lexington was struck by two torpedoes as the Japanese Vals aircraft attacked it from both sides. It also sustained a bomb hit on its smokestack but continued to operate for a short time after correcting a list. Fire ignited fuel and the order was given to abandon ship – it sank taking 46 aircraft with it. The carrier USS Yorktown was hit by a bomb but was able to withdraw from the Coral Sea.

The Coral Sea Battle has been regarded as a victory for the Allies. On examining the losses sustained by both sides, the Japanese emerged in far better shape. Tactically the Japanese won but it was a strategic victory for the Allies as they thwarted the invasion of Port Moresby. The authors claim that the Japanese force was certainly strong enough to continue its attack on Port Moresby, but the conservative Japanese senior commanders above the local admiral postponed the attack. [Due to no carriers being available for the remainder of 1942, the Japanese were then forced to attempt the impossible – a land advance culminating in the battle along the Kokoda Track.] Land-based aircraft continued to bomb Port Moresby harbour deep into June, with local Aircobra squadrons providing the best resistance they could. Allied offence against Lae and its environs saw B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder bombers flying incredibly long shuttle missions from Townsville.

Immediately after the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese submarines turned their attention to harassing ports on the Australian mainland. These incursions have been covered in considerable detail. The final chapter examines the defences of New Caledonia, The New Hebrides, Fiji and Townsville during the first six months of 1942.

Reviewed for RUSIV by Neville Taylor, March 2020

Contact Royal United Services Institute about this article.

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