Tuesday, 3 January 2017

South Pacific Cauldron - Alan Rems

This review was published in the Canadian Naval Review

Title: South Pacific Cauldron
Author: Alan Rems
ISBN: 978-1-61251-470-3
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Hardcover
Pages: 284
Photos/Maps: 42/16

The public's knowledge of the Pacific Campaign during World War 2 is very limited and focussed. Battles such as Pearl Harbour, Bataan, Singapore, Midway and Iwo Jima come quickly to mind when challenged, but in actual fact, these represent but a few of the myriad of battles fought in the shadows of the European conflict and the Battle of the Atlantic. Rems' intent with this book has been to shed light, in one comprehensive work,  upon those battles fought with no less violence, intensity and anguish in some of the most difficult environments on earth, that have faded from the collective conscience of the world writ large. 

Further marginalizing the history of this conflict was he fact that the South Pacific Campaign served as both a prelude and to secure the southern flank of the much higher profile Central Pacific Offensive launched in late 1943. Maintaining a perspective that incorporates all of the major combatants (US, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand) he has ensured a balanced and studied approach to the successes and failures of the parties  involved and thus an excellent study of lessons for the present.

Commencing with the Battle of Guadalcanal, the author focuses his attention on the operations in the South Pacific chain of island (Primarily the Solomon Islands, New Britain and New Guinea). It is very enlightening and surprising how effective and aggressive the Japanese remained despite an inexorable turning of the tide both in terms of resources and technology. For example, of the twelve naval  battles of the Solomon Island campaign, the Japanese won or drew even in ten of them. Noteworthy technological advantages remained with the Japanese in terms of torpedo and torpedo bomber well into 1944; additionally, superior tactical control of surface assets in combat also remained with the Japanese commanders until the beginning of 1944.

The author undertakes a detailed analysis of the various combatant forces and it is striking the patterns that emerge. For example, it is clear that on the Japanese side, intelligence was woefully inaccurate, repeatedly underestimating Allied forces and intentions. Also, the Japanese were superb jungle fighters able to take advantage of terrain to develop formidable defensive works. As soldiers and aircrew, they were extremely resilient, tough fighters consistently taking horrible casualties compared to the Allies. Additionally, they were often operating under conditions of extreme malnutrition bordering on starvation as well as rampant illness. Logistically, it was evident that the Japanese were operating under extremely adverse conditions and yet, somehow, were able to maintain operational capability despite the incredible shortages. Unfortunately, the author does not provide a great deal of insight into this aspect of the operations limiting his Japanese analysis to the actions of senior officers; this would have been very enlightening and helpful as a counterpoint to the Allied   undertakings.

On the Allied side, his discussions are fascinating. One is struck very early on by the interservice and international rivalries within and between the Allied forces. Resistance to joint operational command was very ingrained and was the cause of a series of losses that could have been avoided. Additionally, the Allies had broken the Japanese codes and were therefore in a much better position to proactively engage. Allied soldiers were equally as tough as their counterparts and a healthy respect for both the climate and between the adversaries was a hallmark of journals and recollections. What was also very interesting, was, especially within the Australian forces, was the employment of Divisions in diametrically opposite environments. Thus the Australian 7th Division, famous for its stand at Tobruk in North Africa was transferred to New Guinea and had to learn from scratch how to become effective jungle fighters. Again, the logistics of the offensives are given scant attention by the author despite the fact that many of the operations were undertaken with the sole purpose of providing operating bases.

Also, in terms of straight numbers, it is easy to understand why these campaigns did not challenge for the limelight in domestic attention. The operations generally involved small numbers of troops when compared with European or even Central Pacific operations) and were long drawn out affairs. Geography and infrastructure ensured that these actions were not quick nor dramatic. The environment was as dangerous and unforgiving as the enemy and was under appreciated at the combatants extreme peril.

Rems provides excellent maps and photographs that serve to reinforce his narrative. Despite the areas of his work that could have been given greater appreciation (the Japanese operational and tactical demands and the logistics of the Allied effort) his writing is strong, his analysis balanced and his style engaging. It is easy to understand, although, unless actually experienced not fully appreciate, the horrible conditions under which these operations took place: determined, unforgiving adversaries, geography that was easily some of the most difficult in the world to operate within and generally ignored in the domestic and world press. A solid bibliography rounds out Rems' work. It serves as a fitting testament to those fighting in a horrific sideline and the challenges that they faced.

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