REVIEW

Michael Veitch places us right at the scene of the battle of the Bismarck Sea

Standing behind the cockpit of an RAAF Beaufighter, war photographer Damien Parer captures Squadron Leader Ron
Standing behind the cockpit of an RAAF Beaufighter, war photographer Damien Parer captures Squadron Leader Ron "Torchy" Uren taking a swig from his canteen as the battle rages below. Picture: The Australian War Memorial
  • The Battle of the Bismarck Sea: the forgotten battle that saved the Pacific, by Michael Veitch. Hachette, $32.99.

It is hard to write about battle, very, very hard indeed. As Helmuth von Moltke wrote: "no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy". Michael Veitch's brilliant account of the battle of the Bismarck Sea, throwing Allied aircraft against a substantial Japanese convoy in March 1943, fundamentally contradicts that adage. Covering nearly 40 pages towards the end of his book, Veitch's stunning and descriptive narrative allows the reader to follow every phase of the battle.

Readers look for and admire good writers and great writing. They will find it, in spades, in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea. I imagine Veitch spending days, if not weeks, poring over his detailed notes to plot his absorbing narrative.

Then must have followed days, or again possibly weeks, as he wrote the narrative always with the interests of his readers at heart. To make sense, to give clarity, to the confusion of this extraordinary battle is an achievement of great significance, revealing a writer at the top of his form.

Planned to perfection by a small number of American and Australian leaders, including George C. Kenney (American) and William 'Bull' Garing (Australian), the battle's schedule was timed to the minute. Orchestrating multiple varieties of aircraft, each with a distinct and important job, the planners ordered that the swift, darting Beaufighters be first in, with bullets and cannon-fire to strafe the decks, but, crucially, to destroy the bridge of each Japanese vessel in the convoy. This rendered them incapacitated before the larger aircraft, with torpedoes and bombs, wreaked carnage.

Readers will breathe in the stench of the explosives, the smoke of aircraft exhaust, and the smell of death. They will feel the awesome vibrations of the variety of naval and merchant naval ships, as the bombs and torpedoes slam into the their iron-clad frames.

They will marvel at the bravery of legendary Australian film-maker, Damian Parer, standing directly behind the pilot's cockpit seat, placing his camera on the pilot's head, holding on for dear life with one hand, as the aircraft poured fire into the enemy's ships. An Australian pilot said of him, simply, "the bravest man I ever knew".

It was touch and go, this battle. Planners did not know whether the convoy, assembled in Rabaul, was making for Madang, Wewak or Lae. Sailing on 1 March, 1943, a convoy of merchant ships, escorted by a flotilla of destroyers, enjoyed safe conditions with cloud protection preventing observation of the convoy's progress. Located, in good weather, on 3 March, with the assaulting force despatched from a variety of airfields at 9.30 am, the convoy was now in deep trouble. In 28 minutes it was destroyed.

In a remarkable last stanza in Veitch's battle account, he describes the Japanese suffering and loss. Using accounts of the few survivors, and other documentary evidence, readers feel the Japanese confidence aboard the convoy as Lae nears. Then they hear the noise of aircraft and look skywards. They certainly had not expected, nor had prepared for, the first wave of attackers flying towards them at "mast-height". Nor had they anticipated skip bombing, practised to perfection, by the flyers, or the weight of numbers of their opponents. The suffering of crewmen and soldiers was terrifying.

Michael Veitch did not take a traditional path to studying and writing military history but he entered the field with a burst, identifying himself as a writer to excite his readers. He knows that battles are not anonymous and that his readers need identifiable characters, about whom they care, to engage their interest in the horror of battle.

In a leisurely narrative build-up to the battle, Veitch identifies all the ingredients that will give the attackers a mighty advantage: the main strategists of the battle on the Allied side, thoughtful , determined and inventive, thinking for new ways of aerial bombardment; developments in aircraft technology; the importance of codebreaking, and the diligent, unheralded work of dozens of women in monitoring and translating top-secret Japanese communications.

In this account, even ground crew are not entirely ignored, as they usually are. Waiting anxiously for the return of the men they sent into battle, ground crew have no way of knowing how the battle is progressing. Until one inventive Australian rigs up a speaker high in a tree and tunes to the American frequency so that listeners can actually hear what is happening. Eventually an audience of some 3000 men assemble to cheer on those for whom they have laboured so intensely.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is a superb achievement. In Turning Point, Michael Veitch rescued, with superlative skill, the battle of Milne Bay from obscurity. With this book he has done it again, perhaps with even greater success.

This story Right at the scene of the battle first appeared on The Canberra Times.