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Under the Southern Cross: The South Pacific Campaign Against Rabaul

22 Aug 23


(Osprey – £14.99)

ISBN 978 1 4728 3823 0

352 pages

These days, the Pacific campaign in World War II is of commanding interest in the United States – and, significantly, in China too – as horizon-scanning defence planners search for clues as to how to prepare for their next war, even though a lot of things have changed since then. Consequently, books on the subject are in high demand, but this one is not likely to be amongst them. This isn’t because it’s a bad book. Far from it. Nor is it because it doesn’t come with the normal academic trappings of detailed references and all the rest of it; indeed, many will find the conversational style, clear chronological organisation and easy readability that you might expect from a very successful popular author like Cleaver, a decided advantage. Nonetheless, it probably will not as much professional attention as perhaps it should because its focus is very much on the tactical level – on telling an often very human story in a blow-by-blow and essentially descriptive, rather than analytical, way.

Moreover, its focus is on an often neglected campaign that sat uneasily between MacArthur’s advance along the Dutch East Indies to the south and Nimitz’s thrust against Japan though the Central Pacific to the North, and sometimes suffered in consequence when it came to reinforcement and support. Interest in this area has tended to fade after the successful culmination of the Guadalcanal campaign which, after a good but concise account of it, is the real jumping-off point for this book. Here, the focus of attention is on what happened after Guadalcanal, namely the long assault on Rabaul, Japan’s regional naval and air strong point.  On the face of it, Rabaul turned out seeming not to matter very much; in the end Allied planners by-passed it and left it to wither on the vine. Instead, Clever shows us that the assault on Rabual from February to October 1943 really did matter and this emerges, if sometimes in a rather indirect way, from his concentration not so much on land and naval operations, as on the air operations conducted by the US Marines, Navy and Army Air Force. The Australians and New Zealanders are included and the RN gets a brief look-in too, especially when HMS Victorious, aka ‘Robin’, appears and teaches the US Navy its superior centralised fighter direction techniques.

So, what emerges from Clever’s account? First of all, this was a battle of attrition, and one that the Allies with their far superior industrial capacity to build ships and aircraft, to invest in new weaponry and better aircraft and to train more and more aircrew to ever higher standards were almost bound to win, sooner or later. Secondly, this campaign was an important stage in the slow destruction of Japanese airpower. The scale of the campaign is extraordinary in comparison with the forces that both sides deployed in the early days of the war. The Imperial Japanese Navy started its contribution to the Singapore campaign, which ended just over a year before, with just 21 Zero fighters (although they had more Army ‘Oscars’ which were often confused with them). By contrast, at some times in the Rabaul campaign, the IJN fielded up to 150 Zeroes as defensive screens. Indeed, both sides learned the advantages to be gained by deploying large, well-coordinated and centrally directed formations of fighters, bombers and torpedo aircraft that acted as such, even in combat. As an aside, that was one disadvantage of the ‘ace’ system stimulated by the media that encouraged those hungry for glory to go off and do their own thing, sometimes to the detriment of the mission and their colleagues. Superior training really mattered too. By the end, the standards of some Japanese flyers were contemptuously dismissed by their own people “as not as good as the worst of those who failed our training course in 1938”. This in part, accounts for comparative loss rates that sometimes peaked as high as 8:1 in the Americans’ favour. But make no mistake there were serious losses of the very best of the US flyers too. The widening gap in the comparative quality of American and Japanese aircraft mattered too. The Zero (or ‘Zeke’ as the Americans often called them) was already beginning to lose its early war lustre by the time the Rabaul campaign started. Its lack of armour and unprotected fuel tanks made it increasingly vulnerable to the F4U Corsair for example. Although its long nose obscured the pilot’s view as he landed, particularly on carriers, and it was not an easy aircraft to fly, the Corsair was decidedly superior to the Zero in all but horizontal manoeuvrability by October 1943.

Just one final point. Despite all the attention paid to the evolution of technology, the crucial importance of the Coastwatcher system in enabling domain awareness, early interceptions of incoming enemy formations and in the rescue of downed personnel comes out loud and clear in the book. Having the sympathetic support of the local islanders with which they worked really mattered too. Something for US planners to ponder perhaps?

Overall, this book reads nicely; it is very detailed and seems authoritative. It’s a good example of story-telling naval history. You will enjoy and profit from reading it, as I did. Accordingly, I very strongly recommend it, unless, perhaps, you are planning to attack or defend Taiwan. But in fact, even if you are, I still think you should read it. Naval history of all kinds can help us understand what’s the same, as well as what’s not. That’s what makes it so important. Even for planners preparing for the future.