As the 18th January dawned the guns of HMS Royal Sovereign led the newly named Pacific Squadron in bombarding the Japanese positions on Merauke. An excellent recon mission programme had ensured that planners had upto date aerial photo data to transmit to the gunnery officers on the Royal Navy ships. After a three hour shelling which resulted in many fires onshore, the British ships steered away from the main invasion areas to seek refuge from enemy bombers under the fighter umbrella projecting from Australia.
As the RN capital ships withdrew, smaller escort vessels were shepherding their charges into the beaches. The destroyer escorts came right up to the shore line and engaged all visible targets with all armaments at almost point blank range. Behind them smaller landing craft circled their transports as line after line of GI’s from the Americal Division climbed over the side and down the rope ladders into the craft that would deliver them ashore.
B-17s, having closed down Wewak, were now tasked to directly support the landings themselves. Flying in one massive wave at 7,000 feet they plastered the beach landing areas and the jungle immediately behind the beaches just before the first troops waded ashore amid mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Casualties were relatively light, it seemed that the prelanding naval bombardment and the bomber raid had sufficiently suppressed the Japanese forces defending the landing sites.
Japanese response on the first day was muted but Japan’s pilots were in the air over Merauke on the D-Day +1. A small raid of 9 Ki-48’s, escorted by a swarm of A6M2s, were detected by the radar station on Horn Island and the squadrons detailed with setting a LRCAP over the beaches were up early and waiting for the enemy planes. USAAF Warhawks and RAAF Kittyhawks patrolled at around 13,000 feet. The discipline of the Zero pilots failed them and as they swopped down on the easy prey they in turn were swooped upon by the P-38s of the ‘Celebrity Squadron’. 8 enemy planes were seen to be shot down and the surviving bombers were seen to set a new course to the North East.
The day’s last action came in the form of the appearance of the large Japanese flying boats, codenamed Emily and Mavis. They were once again spotted on radar just as night was falling. Fighters were scrambled and several of the large flying boats were intercepted. It appears that the Japanese are using these planes and their large range to either evacuate troops from Merauke or attempt some sort of resupply.