Operation Cleanslate, the occupation of the Russell Islands, 21 February 1943

Operation Cleanslate - the unopposed occupation of the Russell Islands on 21 February 1943 - was one of the first steps in the Allied advance along the Solomon Islands and the long campaign to isolate the major Japanese base at Rabaul.

The Russell Islands are located twenty five miles to the west/ north-west of Guadalcanal. They were left along by the Japanese until late in January 1943 when 300 naval personnel landed and built a barge-staging post that was used during the evacuation of Guadalcanal. The Japanese only stayed for a couple of weeks, and on 11 February a coastwatcher reported that they had left the islands.

Solomon Islands: Japanese Occupation
Solomon Islands:
Japanese Occupation

Admiral Halsey had two motives for ordering the occupation of the Russell Islands. With Guadalcanal finally secure he was worried that the Japanese might attempt to establish a more permanent presence on the nearby Russell Islands. He also hoped to develop the islands into a base that could be used in the upcoming invasion of New Georgia.

The invasion force consisted of the 43rd Infantry Division (Major General John H. Hester) and the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, a force of around 10,000 men. The only real danger was that the Japanese would detect the invasion force and either attack the invasion fleet or land a garrison on the islands.

The Russell Islands contained two main islands - Pavuvu in the west and Banika in the east, along with a number of smaller islands. The Japanese had used Baisen, one of the smaller islands for their barge base, but the Americans decided to land on the two larger islands.

Map of Allied Invasions, Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands:
Allied Invasions

The invasion fleet left Koli Point, Guadalcanal, late on 20 February and made for three beaches. Beach Yellow was Wernham Cove, on the south-west coast of Banika. Blue 1 and Blue 2 were on opposite sides of the entrance to Renard Sound, an inlet on the north-east coast or Banika. Red Beach was at Paddy Bay, on the eastern shore of Pepesala Point at the northern end of Pavuvu.

The landings took place at 06.00 hours on 21 February 1943. The divisional HQ, most of the 103rd Infantry and some of the Marines landed at Yellow Beach. Another battalion from the 103rd Infantry landed on Blue 1 and Blue 2. These units secured Banika by noon.

The 3rd Marine Raider Battalion landed on Red Beach. They cleared the Pepesala peninsula and Baisen Island, and the islands were declared secured at 12.00hours. On the next morning the 169th Infantry landed and the garrison was complete. They prepared to fight off a possible Japanese counterattack, but none came. The Japanese did carry out a series of air raids over the island, starting on 6 March and ending in July 1943, but they were unable to interrupt the construction of a large American base. A major air attack came in early June 1943, as part of a wider Japanese aerial assault on the Russell Islands and Savo Island that cost them 152 aircraft.

Two airfields were soon built on the island. Airfield No. 1 was built on the south-east part of Banika, and a 3,100ft runway was ready by May (later extended to 6,000ft). Airfield No.2 was built nearby, with a 4,500ft runway. A radar station, PT boat base, two landing craft bases and a supply dump were also built on the islands. The Russell Islands were an important base during the invasion of New George, and remained in use during the operations in the Northern Solomon Islands and Bismarck Islands. As late as 1945 it was still in use, this time as a staging post for the invasion of Okinawa, but at the same time the base was being dismantled.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 April 2013), Operation Cleanslate, the occupation of the Russell Islands, 21 February 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_cleanslate.html

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