Cape Gloucester

Relief map of Cape Gloucester

Photograph of Cape Gloucester area

U.S. Air Force. Via

Cape Gloucester is the western tip of New Britain. The area is mostly jungle-clad, with mountains inland and swamps along the coast. However, there are scattered areas of grassland inland on the coastal plain suitable for airfield construction. The area is dominated by 6600' (2011 meter) Mount Talawe. The area had a number of native trails but no other infrastructure. The coastline on the western side of Borgen Bay to the east of Cape Gloucester had several breaks in the reef opening onto suitable landing beaches.

Cape Gloucester commands Dampier Strait to its west and was occupied by the Japanese following the capture of Rabaul in January 1942. The Japanese subsequently constructed a 3900' (1200 m) airstrip at Tuluvu, and Cape Gloucester became an important way station for barge traffic to New Guinea.

By 1943 the Japanese garrison numbered about 10,500 troops of Matsuda Force, which was organized from 65 Brigade, 4 Shipping Command, and elements of 17 and 51 Divisions, with 17 Division the next command echelon. However, Matsuda Force was scattered all over the western tip of New Britain and on some of the islands in the straits to the west, so that only some 7500 troops were in or near Cape Gloucester itself. The remainder of 17 Division was at Gavuvu, on the north coast of New Britain almost 150 miles to the east.

1 Marine Division (Rupertus) landed at Cape Gloucester on 26 December 1943. The terrible terrain proved more of an enemy than the Japanese The airfield was overlooked by jungle-covered mountains and most of the shore was mangrove swamp. Aerial reconnaissance had carefully mapped the offshore reefs but failed to detect the swamp. Three separate reconnaissances by Alamo Scouts identified two small landing beaches about five miles (8 km) from the airfield that were weakly defended and could be approached through gaps in the reefs.

Allied order of battle, 26 December 1943

CTF 76 (Barbey)

First Echelon

APD Task Group Beach Yellow 1

APD Stringham

APD Crosby

APD Kilty

APD Dent

APD Ward

3/7 Marine Regiment, 720 men

APD Task Group Beach Yellow 2

APD Brooks

APD Gilmer

APD Sands

APD Humphreys


1/7 Marine Regiment, 720 men

2 Echelon

LCI Task Unit Beach Yellow 1


2/1 Marine Regiment, 720 men

LCI Task Unit Beach Yellow 2


3/1 Marine Regiment, 720 men

Escort Force

DD Shaw

DD Conyngham

DD Flusser

DD Mahan

DD Reid

DD Smith

Beach Yellow Harbor Control Unit

2 SC


Cruiser Bombardment Unit (Crutchley)     

Airdrome Section

CA Australia

CA Shropshire

Yellow Beach Section (Berkey)

CL Nashville

CL Phoenix


Destroyer Division 48

DD Bush

DD Ammen

DD Bache

DD Mullany

4 other DD

3 Echelon

Each carrying 500 troops and 150 tons bulk stores plus guns and vehicles

DD Drayton

DD Lamson

DD Mugford

DD Bagley

4 Echelon
Carrying 1500 troops of Battalion Landing Team 21, vehicles, guns, and 575 tons bulk stores.

14 LCM

12 LCT

2 rocket DUKWs

2 SC

1 PC


DD Reid

DD Smith

5 Echelon

7 LST Each carrying 480 troops of Combat Teams B and C and 150 tons bulks stores, vehicles, and tanks

DD Hutchins

DD Beale

DD Daly

DD Brownson

6 Echelon

5 LST Each carrying 240 troops of 12 Marine Defense Battalion and medical detachment, 250 tons bulk stores, vehicles, and guns

3 PC

DD Flusser

DD Mahan

AT Sonoma

7 Echelon

5 LST Each carrying 250 Marine engineers, 250 tons bulk stores, vehicles, and guns.

AT Reserve

3 SC

DD Drayton

DD Lamson

DD Mugford

DD Bagley

Reserve Group

LSI Westralia

LSD Carter Hall

AK Etamin

Japanese order of battle

65 Brigade (Matsuda)

Two battalions, 53 Regiment The rest of 53 Regiment, plus 141 Regiment, were deployed too far from Cape Gloucester to affect the outcome of the campaign

Approximately 20 aircraft (at Cape Gloucester)   

Air support was provided by AIRSOLS strikes against Rabaul, a carrier strike against Kavieng, and 5 Air Force strikes against Cape Gloucester itself. The Japanese nonetheless got enough scout planes into the air to detect the convoy, but Kusaka guessed it was headed towards the beachhead at Arawe (149.034E 6.167S), which had been established on 15 December 1943 as a diversion, and most of the Japanese air power was directed there: The diversion worked.

The preliminary bombardment at Cape Gloucester began at 0600, and white phosphorus bombs were used for the first time. The first wave was ashore by 0805 and immediately began moving through the jungle. By the end of the day, some 13,000 troops and 7600 tons of supplies were ashore. The Japanese responded with a strike at 1430 by 20 Vals and 50 to 60 fighters. These were detected 60 miles (100 km) out by destroyer radar, but the four squadrons of P-38s providing air cover missed the interception. The Japanese sank destroyer Brownson with heavy loss of life and badly damaged Shaw with near misses that sprayed the hull with shrapnel. Subsequent attacks did little damage and heavy weather from 29 December onward put a halt to enemy air activity.

The same weather meant wretched conditions for the ground troops. However, the discovery of a small beach further west that was suitable for landing supplies relieved some of the logistical pressure. Marine engineers and 19 Naval Construction Battalion were able to construct roads and bridges to support the advance. This was fortunate as the monsoon set in on 28 December, with rain as heavy as 16 inches per day, which made the existing coastal road impassable. The Marines slogged ahead and the airfield was captured on 30 December after a sharp fight. A more difficult objective was the hills overlooking the anchorage at Borgen Bay. It took the Marines two weeks just to move into position through the jungle, and on 13 January 1944 the Marines commenced their attack on Hill 660. Tanks were unable to move up to support, but the Marines crawled up a near-vertical slope to surprise the Japanese and clear the hills on 14 January 1944. Thereafter, Japanese counterattacks against the beachhead were sporadic and ineffective. Some 3100 Japanese were killed at a cost to the Marines of 248 killed and 772 wounded. Some 25 deaths were due to falling trees in the swamps, whose roots were loosened by the heavy rain and the artillery barrage.

The terrible weather conditions proved more memorable for many Marines than the Japanese resistance. Hot food was impossible to prepare in the downpour, and Marines hoarded the waxed paper and cardboard from K ration containers as a source of fuel for heating coffee. Anything made of leather quickly developed a layer of blue mold that had to be scraped off every day. It was impossible for the Marines to keep their feet dry, and trench foot became a serious problem.

Allied units would continue to probe up the island as the Japanese withdrew into their fortress of Rabaul for the remainder of the war.

MacArthur believed the Cape Gloucester landings were necessary to secure Dampier Strait between New Britain and New Guinea and helped close the noose on Rabaul. However, Morison (1950) argued that the landings were unnecessary, since the Japanese force at Cape Gloucester had no artillery with which to close Dampier Strait, and Vitiaz Strait between Finschhafen and Rooke Island was a better channel for shipping in any case. However, this was not obvious at the time.


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