16th-18th January 1942
As the bulk of the IJN was cruising around the Southern Marshalls, a plan that had been long in the making was unwrapping itself in the Bay of Carpentaria. Australia Command had long wanted to regain a toehold on Papua. Port Moresby had been effectively denied as a viable base to the enemy thanks to the heavy squadrons of V Bomber Command however the ring of bases around it made it a very difficult target to attack without carrier support. Merauke was the second option and a well developed base at Horn Island could support an amphibious landing there. Though the US would provide most of the lifting capacity the Royal Navy was asked to provide surface assests from its Eastern Fleet to support the landings. Two Royal Soverign Class battleships and their escorts along with a couple of heacy cruisers were dispatched from the Indian Ocean and arrived at Sydney around New Years. The Americal Division would sperhead the assault supported by three regimetns of artillery and two regiments of Australian armour. D-Day was tentatively penciled on 18th January 1943.
24 hours earlier however Japanese planes sunk a two transport convoy that was unloading supplies in support of the Merauke landings at Horn Island. A number of torpedo bombers, escorted by a large number of A6M3s, were able to bypass a CAP of RAAF Spitfires and sink the medium sized ships. High command immediately recognised the danger to Operation Hop and ordered V Bomber Command to move all its B-17s to Coen with orders to bomb and close down Wewak, the base from which the raid proceeded from. Three waves comprising a total of 48 B-17 bombers were successful in their mission getting at least 10 enemy bombers on the ground. With this large threat removed from Merauke’s flank Hop was giving the go ahead.