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Battle of Cape Gloucester - Purpose of the Fighting

Battle of Cape Gloucester - Purpose of the Fighting American History Famous Historical Events Geography World War II World History

Cape Gloucester is located atop the northwest corner of New Britain and is part of the Bismarck Archipelago.  It is near the Solomon Islands (which also includes Guadalcanal, depicted at the lower right corner of this map). 

To get a sense of the Pacific's vast expanse, we can view a map of the continental U.S. superimposed on a map of the Pacific southwest (where many World War II battles were fought).  The map (Plate 12, at page 41 of the Reports of General MacArthur, Volume I) reveals that even distances between islands were often significant.

Why did anyone care about these hot, malaria-infested places?  General MacArthur believed capturing Cape Gloucester, and other island locations with good harbors, was indispensable for his plan to recapture Japanese-occupied sections of the Philippines:

Although the reduction of Rabaul was an important goal, MacArthur was also interested in obtaining bases to support his drive toward the Philippines. All the military services, and especially the Allied navies, required logistical bases to resupply their forces, repair their equipment, treat their wounded, and support their fighting elements. The Admiralty Islands, within the Bismarck Archipelago, contained an excellent harbor that could fulfill those needs.

What were conditions like at Cape Gloucester?

Like much of the southern Pacific, the Bismarck Archipelago consisted of volcanic islands with steep mountains, dense jungles, and malaria-breeding swamps. Temperatures were hot, softened only by torrential rains and often dense cloud cover. Governed by Australia before the war, the population consisted almost exclusively of native islanders. A few coconut plantations and missionary settlements reflected inroads of western civilization, but for the most part the islands remained primitive.

Why was the Bismarck Archipelago, including Cape Gloucester, important to Japan?

The Japanese Eighth Army headquarters directed operations in the archipelago. From Rabaul, it controlled all Japanese Army forces in the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Bismarcks. By late 1943, following the series of defeats which had begun in Papua and Guadalcanal and continued through the battles for North-East New Guinea and the Solomons, the Japanese adopted a posture of strategic defense. Constant reinforcements brought the strength of the Rabaul garrison, the southeast anchor of their defensive perimeter, to over 90,000 men by February 1944, and additional units defended the outlying islands.

MacArthur ordered the taking of Cape Gloucester as part of Operation Dexterity.  He thought the Japanese defenses would be light:

General MacArthur decided formally to open the campaign, Operation DEXTERITY, with December assaults on the western tip of New Britain. Possession of this area would provide the Allies with Cape Gloucester and the small harbor of Arawe, facilitating control of the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. Local beaches were suitable for amphibious landings, and Japanese defenses were expected to be light.

MacArthur and the Allies misjudged the Japanese defenses.  They were not light:

The assault began on 15 December 1943 and almost immediately encountered severe difficulties. Japanese machine gunners spotted the rubber boats and sank almost all of them. The soldiers of A Troop were forced to abandon their equipment and swim for their lives. Sixteen were killed and seventeen wounded in this abortive attack before naval gunfire could silence the Japanese machine guns. Meanwhile, the main attack, employing conventional landing craft less susceptible to damage from machine gun fire, also ran into problems as successive landing waves became separated and confused. Nevertheless, superior Allied firepower forced the numerically inferior Japanese to retreat. By midafternoon the Americans controlled the peninsula.

It was not the end of the battle for Cape Gloucester, however.  The Japanese continued to fight:

Although they lost the opening battle, the Japanese did not concede Arawe to the Americans without further struggle. Beginning on the afternoon of the invasion, 15 December, and continuing for the next several days, they launched furious air attacks, especially targeting ships that had supported the assault. In addition, two nearby Japanese infantry battalions advanced on Arawe and dug in just beyond the American perimeter.

A stalemate ensued, requiring combat leaders to send in American Marines:

The tactical situation rapidly degenerated into a stalemate as the Americans and Japanese probed each other's lines. American strength and the natural defensive terrain along the base of the Arawe peninsula rendered the U.S. lodgment relatively secure for the moment, but American commanders could not feel comfortable with an entrenched enemy just outside their perimeter. To break the stalemate without incurring excessive casualties, Krueger [Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger] landed a Marine Corps tank company and additional infantry to reinforce the 112th Cavalry.

The 1st Marines - veterans of the Battle for Guadalcanal, including Robert Leckie - were assigned the job.  They landed at Cape Gloucester the day after Christmas, 1943.

Click on the image for a better view.

See, also:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Media Credits

Map and quotations from "Bismarck Archipelago - The U.S. Army Campaign of World War II," online courtesy the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Externally linked maps - from Reports of General MacArthur, Volume I - in order of appearance, above:

1.  Plate 12 - "The United States Superimposed on the Southwest Pacific Area" - at page 41;

2.  Plate 1 - "The Japanese Conquests which Isolated General MacArthur's Forces in the Philippines" - at page 1; and

3.  Plate 2 - "The Japanese Invasion of the Philippines and the Forces Employed" -  at page 5.

 

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