The Principles of War Podcast
Battle of the Bismarck Sea
Bismarck SeaMilitary InnovationNew Guinea CampaignPodcast

49 – Innovative tactics for the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

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How were the innovative tactics for maritime strike developed in the SPWA by GEN Kenney?

This podcast episodes discusses the evolution of maritime strike tactics that were to be used in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Pattern bombing wouldn’t work for Kenney,  because there was often clouds down to 2,000 feet, and the lack of aircraft precluded the numbers of aircraft to saturate the target area to compensate for the lack of accuracy experienced from 25,000 feet.  This issue was exacerbated by the fact that the target could be expected to manoeuvre aggressively to avoid the falling bombs.

Low level bombing had been tried by the RAF early after the start of the war in Europe.  The bomb required a fuse that armed quickly, but delayed so that the explosion wouldn’t damage or destroy the plane dropping the bomb.  RAF Coastal Command had used skip bombing early in the war with some success.  452 Sqn RAAF had also already used skip bombing as well.  GEN Arnold ordered the development of skip bombing as a way to increase the effectiveness of maritime strike.

It was GEN Kenney who really championed the low level strike tactics in the Fifth Air Force, with it also being used with B-17s.  The development of the B-25 Commerce Raider shows the iterative process used to develop a  workable solution.  After the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Hap Arnold had a meeting with design engineers who told GEN Kenney why the B-25 couldn’t carry 10 .50 cal machine guns.  It was much to their chagrin, that Kenney told them that 12 B-25s fitted out as they had discussed had played an important role in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and another 60 was being fitted out as they spoke.

The combination of skip bombing and the Commerce Raiding B-25 was an innovative tactic that set the conditions for low level strike with low levels of casualties.

We also discuss the development of the parafrag bomb, a bomb that was developed by Kenney himself.  He was able to get his hands on 3,000 parafrags, which were 14 years old, a small 23 lb bomb with a parachute to delay the flight of the bomb and ensure that the aircraft wasn’t hit by debris.  They worked very well and he then requested Hap Arnold to produce 5,000,000 of the parafrags.  Kenney also experimented with 100 lb white phosphorus bombs and a proto type daisy cutter bomb.

He was able to get 50 P-38s initially, an aircraft unliked by Hap Arnold – this was why he was able to obtain them.  The P-38 would go on to down 1,800 enemy planes.  It was a twin-engine fighter, with long range, heavy payload, fast speed, fast climb, and concentrated firepower.  Kenney worked to find the roles that it was suitable for.

Risks for innovative tactics development

Kenney admitted that some of his experiments didn’t work.  Ennis Whitehead was convinced that there was too much experimentation and not enough production.  “We’ve given ourselves lots of headaches, but we have also gotten some fine results.”  He even tried to incite a volcano into activity by bombing the volcano with 2,000 lb bombs.  (This didn’t work!)  Three RAAF A-20 Bostons had been destroyed, probably by the mechanism of a type of parafrag that was being used with a new fuse.  This is the real cost of military innovation.

We discuss the innovative tactics of Air Commodore Bill Garing.  He was able to discuss with Eric Feldt, the commander of the Coast Watcher Unit.  Feldt suggested keeping the Japanese out at night in Rabaul, which would cause them to be bitten by the Anopheles Mosquito.  This, combined with the lack of malaria precautions, created a very large increase in malaria casualties in Rabaul.  Knowing this, Garing was able to come up with a tactic that dramatically increased the incidence of Malaria in Rabaul.

The Military Innovation Dilemma.

John Boyd – To be somebody or to do something – to be or to do.

Robert Coram in his biography of John Boyd sums up the dilemma facing many trying to innovate in a non-permissive environment.  “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

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