It was time for MacArthur to take the initiative once again in New Guinea. On 1 September 1943 the US VII Amphibious Force under the command of Rear-Admiral Daniel Barbey left Milne Bay on the extreme southeast coast with three brigades of Australian troops in a convoy of ninety-seven vessels escorted by nine destroyers. He successfully landed these 8,000 troops in two batches east of the port of Lae during the nights of 3-4 and 5-6 September respectively. Skilful use of radar by the escort’s picket destroyer Reid and the ability to call on US fighter planes to assist in breaking up incoming Japanese bombing formations, helped to keep losses of landing craft to a bare minimum. An offshore bombardment also helped to soften up the Japanese defences around Lae, a town that had been used hitherto by the Japanese as an important supply base for making a series of attacks on the interior. It finally fell to the Australians on 16 September four days after the port of Salamaua had fallen. Once the larger port of Lae had been taken, the southern coastal route along the Huon Peninsula to the port of Finschhafen at its eastern extremity lay open. MacArthur knew that a victory on the Huon Peninsula in New Guinea would enable him to build a number of airfields there for use in supporting the invasion of the western end of New Britain and the capture of Cape Gloucester (Operation Dexterity) later in the year. Once his troops had established a foothold in New Britain, they could begin their drive towards Rabaul. Apart from its naval facilities, Rabaul was home to four crucial airfields, vast munitions warehouses and a garrison of 100,000 Japanese troops. MacArthur believed that its seizure would provide the key necessary to unlock the entire Bismarck Archipelago.
If the Japanese grudgingly gave ground in New Guinea, the same was true of the central Solomons too. Although they had been startled and discomforted by Halsey’s island-hopping strategy of late, the Japanese had responded by putting reinforcements ashore on the northern coast of Vella Lavella to build up their slender supply base at Horaniu. It was never going to be sufficient to do anything more than make an eventual victory harder than it otherwise would have been. It was nothing less than a delaying tactic and one which reflected a new defensive mentality adopted by the Japanese IGHQ. Despite the significance MacArthur gave to Rabaul, the Japanese had decided that even this naval base would have to be ultimately sacrificed in favour of falling back on Truk. Nonetheless, the intention was not to give the Americans and their allies any easy victories. After a series of inconclusive naval skirmishes off the coast of Vella Lavella, a final evacuation was ordered from the Japanese garrison on Kolombangara in late September and early October. These men were to be withdrawn so that they could be employed in the defence of Bougainville, the largest island in the Solomons, where the Japanese would be able to muster 35- 40,000 troops to slow the progress of the Allied war effort. Rear-Admiral Matsuji Ijuin helped the cause by engineering a remarkable evacuation effort in which more than a hundred assorted landing craft and other small vessels were employed. In a series of evacuations that began on 25 September and lasted for several days, 9,400 men were plucked from the northern shore of Kolombangara despite the early imposition of an Allied destroyer blockade around the island that did much to complicate and imperil the entire operation.
The MV Krait, used to infiltrate Singapore.
While retreats were being staged in these months, the ebb and flow of war was seen in the staging of a number of operations that were designed to take the initiative and strike a blow against their adversaries. One of the most daring and heroic occurred on 17 September when three two-man kayak teams each with nine delayed-action magnetic limpet mines weighing a total of forty-five kilograms were released late at night from the motor drifter Krait in the waters off Pandjang, an island in the Riau archipelago south of Batam and more than 50km (over 27nm) from their final objective – to sabotage Japanese shipping in the port of Singapore. Over the course of the next ten days they rested up on uninhabited islands during the daylight hours and paddled closer to Singapore under cover of darkness. Major Ivan Lyon, the leader of Operation Jaywick, decided that the attack should be made during the night of 26-27 September. One team (Davidson and Falls), finding nothing in Keppell Harbour, attached their limpet mines to three Japanese cargo vessels lying offshore in the Singapore Roads before sculling away noiselessly in the darkness of the night. Another team (Lyon and Huston), unable to penetrate the gloom of the Examination Anchorage, opted to place all nine limpet mines on a 10,000-ton tanker that they came across. Page and Jones in the final kayak targeted the wharves and waters off the oil refinery of Pulau Bukom where two freighters and a rusting cargo ship were on hand. As all three teams sought to put some distance between themselves and the scene of their recent nocturnal activities, they heard the reassuring sound of several explosions coming from the direction of Singapore. All of their mines had worked flawlessly with the result that the damage caused to two of the freighters was sufficient to sink them, the solitary tanker was badly holed and the other four vessels involved in the raid were put out of action for the immediate future. Surveying the damage caused to their shipping understandably infuriated the Japanese military who strove incredibly hard to find the saboteurs over the next few days. Amazingly, perhaps, given the manhunt that was mounted for them, all six of the saboteurs remained free. They did so by only stirring at night. During the day they remained hidden on the countless small islands that form the Riau chain and only as darkness came would they emerge to paddle back towards the rendezvous point off Pulau Pompong – more than 100km from Singapore. When the Krait returned from her leisurely meanderings in the waters off Borneo to meet them in the early hours of 2 October only one of the kayak teams (Davidson and Falls) had managed to reach the rendezvous point in time to clamber aboard the motor drifter. A couple of days later the Krait returned to pick up the other kayak teams and take all three crews safely to a heroes’ reception in Western Australia. Daring though it was, Operation Jaywick was in reality more a severe jolt to Japanese pride than a critical blow to their mercantile ambitions in the region. While it would be churlish to devalue the heroism of Major Lyon and his men in carrying out this raid, one wonders whether the benefits of bloodying the nose of the Japanese were really worth it since the human cost to an innocent set of victims in Singapore was far more significant than the commercial losses sustained by the occupying power.