Three separate convoys carried the 3rd Division to Guadalcanal, where an advanced base known as the Forward Maintenance Centre or FMC in military language, was established for operations during the whole of the Solomons Campaign. The 14th Brigade arrived first, disembarking there on 27 August 1943. Divisional troops and units followed on 2 September and the 8th Brigade on 14 September. As the first units of the Division settled into new camps for a brief period before moving north into action in the jungle, Italy’s sur-render came as welcome news from the European front.
The voyage from the Hebrides, into increasing heat as each day brought the Equator nearer, was without incident, though the second convoy, which included two transports carrying Divisional troops, was attacked by submarine. Early one morning three torpedoes were reported by lookout personnel to have passed harmlessly through the six transports and five destroyers just as the ships steamed into the sheltered waters dividing the southern islands of the group. No one saw the submarine. At that time enemy underwater craft lay in wait for shipping which passed between Guadalcanal and Cristobal, the lane most frequently used by all convoys approaching from the south, but superior air cover and the increasing strength of protective naval craft were rapidly diminishing the attacks as the Japanese were relentlessly driven farther north.
When units of the 3rd Division landed on Guadalcanal, that island was the principal forward base for actions in progress 32Okms away to the north in the New Georgia Group. The sheltered waters near Tulagi, a tiny island off the coast of Florida and formerly the Government station and principal trading centre, had been organised as a naval base and there ships sheltered behind many miles of strong submarine nets. Henderson Field, the first aerodrome on Guadalcanal to be wrested from the Japanese, was restless and noisy with the continual arrival and departure of hundreds of planes fighters and bombers going to and from raiding tasks; reconnais-sance planes constantly watching immediate sea lanes for submarines or investigating enemy activity on other islands; Scat machines ferrying cargoes of men and material to combat zones and forward areas or returning with sick and wounded. By that time, too, other airfields had been constructed and were in operation. Only a particularly large flight of aircraft caused the men to cease work and look into a brilliant blue sky, so familiar had the overhead drone become to their ears.
By the time the Division arrived to play its part in the Solomons Campaign the strategy of bypassing enemy occupied islands had been devised and was being fulfilled. In order to achieve success this strategy required the use of large numbers of aircraft to provide air cover, patrols and to pulverise enemy bases and aerodromes; motor torpedo boats to work at night attacking enemy barges transporting personnel and supplies to their various island garrisons; landing craft of all sizes to ferry our own troops and equipment for each engagement and naval vessels to protect convoys of smaller craft and, if necessary, to bombard enemy positions at the point of attack. These were then all available for Admiral W.F.Halsey’s forces, of which 3rd NZ Division was a valuable striking unit.
Briefly the strategy of bypassing was to get behind the enemy, isolate his bases, and force him to evacuate or surrender by cutting his supply lines and smashing his airfields and defences. This was achieved by capturing some island ahead of an enemy base and establishing there with the greatest possible speed airfields (or airstrips as they were more popularly known), naval bases, and supply dumps. Thus established air power from the new base supported the next move forward and enabled a continuous assault to be maintained on the enemy. Flotillas of motor torpedo boats, hidden during the day, prowled the sealanes at night so that supplies could not reach the beleaguered enemy garrisons.
These powerful little craft, which were practically all engines and armament encased in a wooden shell, travelled at impressive speed and played a significant role in the struggle for the Solomons. The capture of Vella Lavella was a sound example of bypassing strategy and one of the first. It forced the Japanese to evacuate Kolombangara and several smaller islands north of New Georgia and paved the way for the next forward thrusts to the Treasuries, Empress Augusta Bay, and ultimately Green Islands. Amphibious warfare also required the closest cooperation between all three services so that any engagement, if it was to achieve the desired success, had to be planned by representatives of Army, Navy and Air Force working as one organisation.
Units of the Division were on their toes as the hot days went by. Action was not long delayed, but the Division seemed fated to dispersion. Never once during the Solomons Campaign did the two brigades work together in one concerted action. By the time the 8th Brigade was disembarking on Guadalcanal the 14th Brigade was embarking for its move forward. From then the two brigades fought on separate islands, one always a hop, and a long hop, ahead of the other, so that their only direct links were by wireless and aircraft. There can be no connected story of their activities for the brigades did not join up again until they returned to New Caledonia the following year.
The Division’s first task, that of clearing Vella Lavella, fell to the 14th Brigade. When units disembarked on Guadalcanal on 16 August 1943 two American divisions were still engaged in eradicating the last of the Japanese from Arundel Island and the north coast of New Georgia. Munda airfield was operating and fighter planes based there supplemented those from Guadalcanal which daily pounded the enemy strongholds in the north, but the Munda field was still subject to night attacks which were frequent and often very destructive. Units from one of the divisions based on New Georgia had been in action on Vella Lavella for some time and had succeeded in driving the Japanese garrison into the north of the island where they were holding an area in Paraso Bay on the northeast coast, and Mundi Mundi on the west coast. In the south of the island American engineer construction units, known as CBs, had already begun the expeditious removal of a large area of jungle for an airfield at Barakoma, beside the beach of that name, and a naval base had been established close by at Biloa, a former mission station of which only some concrete foundations and flowering trees remained. A rough jeep track ran through the cocoanut palms and jungle for some miles to the north, following the coast. Harassing raids were a nightly occurrence as the Japanese tried to hinder work on the airfield and destroy torpedo boats and petrol dumps.
Major-General Barrowclough decided to establish his Advanced Divisional Headquarters on Vella Lavella, bringing up the remainder of his Headquarters at a later date. He went north on 17 August, travelling by air from Guadalcanal to Munda and completing the journey that night by motor torpedo boat from Rendova, then a strong and important base for these valuable craft. Islands still held by the enemy were skirted on the way up, and a brilliant fireworks display in the darkness revealed an enemy attack on Munda far away on the right.
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