Fortress Rabaul by Bruce Gamble is an extensive history of one of the main Japanese Pacific strong points during World War II. For every plan they made, the Americans had to take Rabaul into account, like a little sliver that constantly calls attention to itself until itís removed (if the sliver were actually so fortified that it could destroy any tweezers you tried to use to remove it). If the Australians knew what Rabaul would become for the Japanese, would they have let it go so easily? As strapped as they were at the beginning of the war, they might have. Gamble considers all of this in an excellent overview of the war in the Southwest Pacific.
Gamble starts the book with a brief history of Rabaul and the island of New Britain, on which it resides. Rabaul makes a perfect harbour: it has many deepwater anchorages and a ring of mountains around it that makes it very hard to bomb by air. It also sits on top of a seismic time bomb, with constant little earthquakes and volcanoes that occasionally spill out ash and flame. The Australians occupied it after World War I, but it was one of the first islands assaulted by the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The practically token Australian force holding the island was overrun almost immediately, and the Japanese started building what would become one of the best-known (and most feared) fortresses in all of the Pacific. The Australians, and then the Americans, tried to bomb it into submission, attempting to keep it from inhibiting Allied operations in the Southwest Pacific, but were never truly successful. Gamble details all of this thoroughly, with raid after raid conducted both at Rabaul and from Rabaul as both sides tried to destroy the air capability of the other.
It does get a bit monotonous at times, all of the constant back and forth, with Gamble including the number of bombers involved in the attacks (and how many didnít take part because of mechanical failure) and the usually inflated results. He continually highlights these inflated claims, often stating the claimed losses and then, using records from the other side, telling us the actual damage done.
However, just when things start to get too boring, some twist happens, whether itís a new bombing technique or some other events that end up changing the dynamic of the entire situation. At times, Gamble breaks it up by talking about the Australian prisoners on New Britain and how horribly they were treated. Or heíll talk about the constant tension between American admirals and generals as they debate the best ways to neutralize Rabaul (the reader can tell that Gamble has no time for General MacArthur, for example). We get an angle on some of the most famous Pacific battles (Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal) from a different standpoint as we see how Rabaul affected them.
While reading about the constant air strikes back and forth might get tedious after a while in other books, Gamble never lets that happen in Fortress Rabaul. His interesting prose style will keep you reading despite the relative sameness of the action. He relates some choice detail for both the events as well as the personalities behind them. Having access to the Japanese military archives greatly helps; he is able to give both sides of the story as well as confirm the truth behind some of the more outlandish claims of damage.
Gamble ends the book with an extremely detailed account of the death of Admiral Yamamoto, the most acclaimed Japanese naval war leader of all time. Having broken the Japanese codes, the Americans knew to the minute where he was going to be as he made the trip to inspect some of the Japanese defenses in the Southwest Pacific. Gamble also discusses the controversy that has surrounded the attack even to this day. Just who shot down Yamamotoís plane? Who gets credit for basically beheading the Japanese military machine? That battle still rages.
One of the few faults with Fortress Rabaul is the ďnotesĒ system. Once again, my least favorite notes system is utilized - each note just quotes a sentence fragment from the chapter and then tells you the source for that information. This requires the reader to constantly be checking the notes section to see if there is anything there. At the very least, there should be a superscript number in the main body of text so that the reader knows thereís a note attached. Whenever I see this note system, I basically ignore them all. I may glance at it occasionally, but it takes me out of my reading rhythm.
Thatís the only real fault I can think of with this book. Otherwise, itís an excellent history of a little-discussed aspect of World War II, at least in the ďpublicĒ history book genre. While Rabaul is often mentioned in other books, itís always done so in relation to the subject matter of that particular book. This is the first time Iíve ever read a book thatís actually about Rabaul. An interesting history indeed. I canít wait for Gambleís follow-up.