ESCORT                                                       ISSUE 115


Part of the greater Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Theatre/Scenario

by Peter French



The loss of I.J.N. Shirayuki (Fubuki class), Asashio (nameship of class), Arashio (Asashio class) and Tokitsukaze (Kagero class), 3rd.March 1943.  Vitiaz Strait, Eastern New Guinea..

Australian/British troops occupying southern side of New Guinea, Japanese forces occupying Northern side, across the Owen Stanley Range.  A stalemate situation existing since early 1942.

A large Japanese reinforcement troop convoy from Rabaul heading west by south for Lae and consisting of eight large transports, carrying around 6,000 Japanese troops, escorted by a powerful destroyer force of eight Fubuki, Asashio and Kagero class destroyers was sighted by a B-24 Liberator of 321st. Sqdn. 90th. Bomb Group from Australia, proceeding west along the northern coast of New Britain, heading for the Vitiaz Strait, on the 1st. March 1943, late in the afternoon.

This disconcerting news, reported back to Allied HQ in Port Moresby could only mean an all-out effort by the Japanese to break the deadlock in New Guinea with a massive offensive - if these troops were allowed to get ashore at Wewak or Lae?

Reaction from the allies in Australia was swift, on the 2nd.March, early in the morning this convoy was attacked by seven B-17s from Australia, just north of the Lae peninsular, sinking one transport, the Kyokusui Maru and badly damaging two more, the Teiyo Maru and Nojima Maru.  At last the Pacific B-17s were hitting something, but it must be questioned . . . why only seven B-17s?

One transport down, it's troops rescued by the destroyers and put aboard the remainder . . . a golden opportunity missed here by the allies as a second wave of B-17s or B-24s would have caught these transports stationary for this off-loading, with dreadful consequences for the Japanese troops.  Such is war!

By the morning of the 3rd. March this convoy was within range of allied single and twin engined fighter-bombers from Port Moresby, which subjected it to a solid day of low-level bombing and strafing with 20mm cannon of RAAF Beaufighters, 37mm cannon of P-39 Airacobras, and skip-bombing with 250 and 500 lb. bombs from B-25s and A-20 Havocs, carried out at 100 - 200 feet using the ricochet effect of the bomb hitting the sea.  This technique had been used in the Mediterranean, since mid-1942 by Blenheims against Rommel's supply convoys from Italy to Tripoli, but with heavy losses . . . the Blenheim was'nt fast enough.  The B-25s and A-20s were, and the Americans picked-up quickly on this new form of bombing.

Shirayuki was first to go, going down very quickly after two probable hits, followed by the other three during the course of the day.  The bombs delivered this way, very low-level at close range, gave the Japanese destroyer no time to evade, nor was the aircraft easy to hit travelling very fast.  The bombs hitting the destroyer's thin hull usually broke it's back.

The transports were even easier to hit being much higher out of the water - all seven were hit during the day, most sunk outright or beached on New Guinea.  It's estimated that 2,900 Japanese troops were lost in these attacks, the remaining 3,000 odd making it ashore from those transports that were beached.  This reinforcement convoy had ceased to exist.

However, whilst the allies could congratulate themselves on a job well done nobody thought, it seems, about the beached transports . . . most of the equipment, ammunition, food, light artillery pieces were salvaged by the indomitable Japanese - the stalemate on New Guinea would continue!

Worryingly though, the I.J.N. had lost another four of it's precious fine destroyers.

Not to scale

Above: the destroyer Shirayuki in 1931 and right, her modern namesake.