Chapter 5: Milne Bay
THESE American landings in the Solomons which, for the Australians, most immediately were to affect the course of events at Milne Bay, had been prepared hastily.
In June Major-General Alexander A. Vandergrift had arrived at Wellington, New Zealand, to prepare his 1st Marine Division for action about the beginning of 1943. The United States Marine Corps had been founded in the 18th century on the model of the British marines. The possession of its own troops enabled the navy to conduct operations ashore without calling upon the army, and the marines were proud of their record of service in every corner of the American empire. They were volunteers and credited themselves with a greater degree of dash and enterprise than the army. In December 1941, there were seven infantry regiments in the corps which, like the navy as a whole, was in process of large expansion. Three of these regiments were included in the 1st Division, three in the 2nd, and the seventh regiment was in the Philippines.
As a result of the rapid expansion of the corps a large proportion of the 1st Division consisted of young soldiers. On 8th December 1941, the division numbered only about 7,000 officers and men—little more than a third of its full strength. In common with the corps as a whole it had to fill its ranks with recruits and at the same time provide cadres for new formations. Consequently experienced soldiers were thinly spread through the regiments. Until 1941 no formation as large as a division had existed in the Marine Corps and thus officers .had had little opportunity to gain experience in higher command and staff work.
The corps was intended primarily for amphibious operations—to win beach-heads under the guns of the navy and hold them until the arrival of the army. However, before the war broke out, the Americans had done little to develop landing craft. In 1940 the corps had no ramp boats; at an exercise in August 1941, five such boats and 16 tank lighters had been available. In that month the first tracked landing vehicles came from the factories and 200 were then on order for the Marine Corps. Fortunately for the Allies the British had been more active in producing landing craft. They had developed some efficient boats before the outbreak of the war with Germany and, in 1940 and 1941, had tested their LSI (Landing Ships Infantry) and several other types of craft in Norway, Greece, Crete, Syria and elsewhere. American manufacturers were building to British designs when Japan attacked and production increased rapidly in the first half of 1942.1
Late in June Admiral Ghormley, aware of the planning that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were then completing, told Vandergrift that it was proposed to attack the Japanese in the Tulagi–Guadalcanal region. The attacking
force would consist of the 1st Marine Division (less one of its “combat teams”—the equivalent of a British brigade group—which then was, and would remain, in Samoa), a combat team of the 2nd Marine Division (then at San Diego), the 1st Marine Raider Battalion (then in New Caledonia) and the 3rd Marine Defence Battalion (then at Pearl Harbour).
If Vandergrift were taken aback by these instructions he could have been forgiven. He had not yet seen his division assembled. ‘The three combat teams were half trained, incompletely equipped and only one had then
arrived in New Zealand. In addition Vandergrift had very little information about the area he was to attack. His documentary references were scanty both in numbers and detail. His Intelligence officers began to search for New Zealand residents who had formerly lived in the Solomons. His chief Intelligence officer flew to Australia on 1st July to get information from General MacArthur’s headquarters and to interview in Sydney and Melbourne people who had knowledge of the Solomon Islands. Eight of these were subsequently attached to the marines as guides and advisers. From the information of the enemy strengths given them by MacArthur’s headquarters, and from their own sources, the marines decided on 20th July that there were 8,400 Japanese on Guadalcanal and Tulagi (as against Ghormley’s estimate of 3,100).
On 28th July Vandergrift’s men from New Zealand arrived in Fiji, D-day having been put back from 1st to 7th August. There they met the remainder of the force and rehearsed the landings. There also the leaders of the various main components of the force met as a group for the first time: Vice-Admiral Fletcher, in command of the entire expedition; Rear-Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commander of the Amphibious Force; Rear-Admiral Crutchley2 of the Australian Squadron, who was second-in-command to Turner and would command the screening naval force which would include three Australian cruisers; Vandergrift, who was to
command ashore. At this stage it became clear that there was a basic misunderstanding between Vandergrift and the naval commanders. Vander-grift had based his plans upon the assumption that the Allies would firmly control the sea and air routes to the Solomons. He found that this was far from being so. The admirals were well aware that they were open to heavy Japanese air and sea attacks and had planned to get most of their ships well clear of the Solomons as soon as possible after the landings were made.
After preliminary bombardments, landings took place on the morning of 7th August on Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu. The two last-named huddled close to the south coast of Florida, an island about 20 miles north of Guadalcanal. Tulagi was an island ridge running east and west, two miles long, half a mile wide. Tulagi Harbour was the stretch of water between Tulagi itself and Florida. In the harbour and near its eastern
entrance were the smaller islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo, connected by a causeway.
Guided by Sub-Lieutenants Horton3 and Josselyn4 of the Australian Navy (formerly officers of the protectorate administration) the boats carrying the first of Lieut-Colonel Merritt A. Edson’s 1st Marine Raider Battalion grounded at exactly 8 a.m. on Tulagi Island. The rest of the battalion quickly followed and after them came the II/5th Battalion. The attackers pushed straight across the island before turning South-east along the northern shore. But they met determined opposition and were still fighting at nightfall.
The Japanese were even more intransigent on Gavutu where the 1st Parachute Battalion had gone ashore from small boats about noon, and lost quite heavily during the actual landings, caught in a punishing fire from the shore. After they landed fire from near-by Tanambogo harried them despite naval gunfire and bombing attacks directed at it. Attacking reinforcements landed on the 8th but still the fighting was hard.
Finally, however, by nightfall of the 8th, the harbour islands and Tulagi itself were in the marines’ hands. Tulagi cost 36 marines killed and 54 wounded; about 200 Japanese were killed there, 3 surrendered, about 40 swam to Florida. On Gavutu and Tanambogo the Americans lost 108 killed or missing, and 140 wounded, and killed some 500 Japanese (the whole garrison).
Meanwhile, on Guadalcanal itself, the Americans had landed on the north coast to the east of Lunga Point and pushed cautiously westward on the first day. Japanese bombers appeared soon after noon. They paid only perfunctory attention to the troops ashore, however, and went looking for the carriers, but did not find them. More aircraft came later in the afternoon and hit the destroyer Mugford. By that time confusion was setting in at the beach-head where so much material had already been landed that it could neither be handled nor added to. The marines bivouacked for the night having suffered no casualties.
When the advance continued on the 8th one or two prisoners were taken. From them it became clear that the Americans had over-estimated the numbers of the defenders. It seemed that the Japanese force did not exceed 700 fighting men and these had fled westward when the first bombardment began. The advance became more rapid after that and the marines cleared quickly some isolated resistance which developed. During the afternoon they occupied the airfield.
The unloading, however, was not proceeding smoothly although General Vandergrift had opened a second beach-head farther west. Material was coming ashore much faster than it could be handled. The position in the air, -too, was giving cause for concern. The American carrier-borne air-craft found themselves at a disadvantage against the highly manoeuvrable
Zeros, although the Australian coastwatchers throughout the Solomons were greatly assisting the Americans by warning them of the approach of Japanese aircraft.
From Paul Mason on Bougainville had come warning of the first raid on the 7th about two hours and a quarter before it developed over the invasion fleet:
... time for ships to disperse in readiness, for carrier-borne aircraft to be refuelled and reammunitioned and to take off and be at high altitude in waiting for the bombers, for guns to be manned; all without haste and without undue interruption to the task of unloading the supplies; in fact, sufficient warning to defeat the attack. On board HMAS Canberra, for instance, the bos’n’s mate piped over the loud-speakers: “The ship will be attacked at noon by twenty-four torpedo-bombers. Hands will pipe to dinner at eleven o’clock.”5
At 8.40 a.m. on the 8th, W. J. Read watched 45 bombers pass over his position on the same island and straightway went on the air, his call sign compounded from the initials of his daughter Judy. “From JER. Forty-five dive bombers going South-east.” By the time these arrived over Guadalcanal all the ships were under way and manoeuvring at top speed. The raiders suffered heavily. So too, however, did the Americans. A blazing bomber dived on to the deck of the transport George F. Elliott and set it on fire. Almost at the same time the destroyer Jarvis was hit by a torpedo and, a little later, went down with all hands.
Fletcher had been operating his carriers South-west of Guadalcanal in support of the landings. He had, however, lost 21 of his 99 carrier-borne planes; fuel was running low; he was worried by the number of Japanese aircraft operating in the area. On the 8th, just as night was coming, he asked Ghormley for permission to withdraw his carriers. Ghormley agreed. When he was told of this Turner called Vandergrift and Crutchley aboard his flagship. He told them that the proposed withdrawal of the carriers would leave his ships without effective air protection and that he had decided, therefore, to withdraw his fleet at dawn next morning. He was uneasy about a report that Japanese surface forces had been sighted approaching his area.
Vandergrift was seriously disturbed. He had 7,500 men ashore at or near Tulagi, 11,000 on Guadalcanal. He could not withdraw even if he wanted to. Not all his material had been unloaded. He would soon be short of all essentials including food and ammunition. He would be alone on a hostile shore whose surrounding waters would be under virtual command of his enemies. Counter-invasion seemed a certainty.
But, bad as the situation was, that same night was to see it worsen drastically. Just as the conference on board Turner’s flagship broke up the first sounds of the Battle of Savo Island came rolling over the rain-drenched waters from the Northwest. There Crutchley’s screening force was patrolling between Florida and Guadalcanal where Savo Island lay midway between the western extremities of the two. The screening ships were surprised by a Japanese naval force and thrown into confusion. As
a result the American cruisers Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, and the Australian cruiser Canberra were sunk, the heavy cruiser Chicago and the destroyers Ralph Talbot and Patterson were damaged. The Japanese lost no ships and indeed, as was subsequently learned, suffered hits by only two shells which struck their flagship Chokai. But, fearing attack in the morning by American aircraft which they knew to be in the area, and the Chokai’s charts having been destroyed by the two shells which struck her, they did not proceed to engage the transports.
Glumly Vandergrift now went into a defensive position. He had only five battalions of infantry on Guadalcanal and, until he could provide air cover for the move, would not transfer his forces from the Tulagi area to the larger island. He organised his defences to extend from the Ilu River, east of Lunga Point, to the village of Kukum just west of the point. They circled the vital airstrip which the Americans named Henderson Field and which they hurried to complete so that they could base aircraft on the island. Vandergrift was afraid that the Japanese would concentrate on his beach-head and destroy his stores, piled in confusion, before he could get them inside the perimeter.
About a week after the landings on Guadalcanal the District Officer, Martin Clemens, reported in through the American lines. During the Japanese occupation he had remained on the island in accordance with the decision of the Resident Commissioner (W. S. Marchant6) to maintain his administration despite the presence of the invaders. From his position on the north coast, east of Lunga, Clemens had watched the initial American landings and hurried to contact the newcomers. He had with him a detachment of the Solomon Islands Defence Force—nearly 60 native volunteers—who had watched and patrolled extensively during the occupation and whom Clemens now placed at Vandergrift’s disposal.
On the 19th a company of marines patrolling eastward engaged a Japanese patrol. From examination of the Japanese dead it was clear that they were newcomers to the island, well fed and well found. Vandergrift decided that they were the spearhead of the counter-attacking force which he had been expecting. As he prepared on the 20th, however, to meet the shock he was cheered by the arrival at Henderson Field of Marine aircraft—No. 223 Squadron (Wildcat fighters) and No. 232 Squadron (Douglas dive bombers)—which had been catapulted in from an escort carrier. That night much enemy activity was reported from the perimeter at the Ilu. At 3.10 a.m. on the 21st Japanese attacked across the sand-bar at the river’s mouth. By the time night came, however, the attacking force had been almost completely destroyed. Nearly 800 had been killed and 15 taken prisoner for the loss of 35 marines killed and 75 wounded.
It was learned later that the American landings in the Solomons caused a revision of the Japanese planning for the proposed attack on Port Moresby. Lieut-General Hyakutake was then ordered to make the recovery of Guadalcanal the mission of his XVII Army. Hyakutake’s formations
were still widely scattered, however. One of the most immediately accessible was a balanced group about 2,000 strong built round the II Battalion of the 28th Regiment and commanded by Colonel Kiyono Ichiki. The Japanese had planned that this Ichiki Force would land at Midway but, after the defeat there, Ichiki had taken his men back to Guam and they were at sea bound for Japan when they were recalled for an attack on the American positions at Guadalcanal. Ichiki himself and his first echelon, about 1,000 strong, landed at Taivu Point (east of Lunga) about 18th August at approximately the same time as some 500 men of the 5th Yokosuka Naval Landing Force landed at Kokumbona (west of Lunga). The rest of the Ichiki Force were following in slower transports. Hyakutake, however, under the misapprehension that the American forces on Guadalcanal were comparatively small and were disintegrating in the face of adverse conditions, believed that Ichiki and his first echelon alone might be able to take the airfield. Ichiki agreed. So he attacked across the mouth of the Ilu River on 21st August. When he realised that the day was lost and his force destroyed he burnt his colours and killed himself on the battlefield.
In anticipation of further Japanese efforts to recapture Guadalcanal American carrier groups including the Wasp, Saratoga and Enterprise were concentrated in the waters South-east of the Solomons in the days following Ichiki’s abortive attack. Admiral Fletcher was in command. Hearing that all the Japanese carriers were north of Truk he sent the Wasp and some other ships south to refuel. But on the morning of 23rd August a searching American aircraft located a Japanese transport group moving south. The combined Saratoga and Enterprise groups moved to meet them. The following afternoon they located a strong Japanese fleet built round the carriers Ryujo, Shokaku and Zuikaku. In the engagement which followed—the Battle of the Eastern Solomons—the Japanese lost the Ryujo in addition to some smaller ships and many aircraft. They then turned back. Further, on the 25th, marine flyers from Henderson Field, found a transport group, escorted by a cruiser and four destroyers, approaching along the strait between Florida and Santa Isabel Island to the Northwest of it. They damaged this group and turned it back also while Flying Fortresses, coming up later, sank a destroyer which was standing by a transport going down from the marine attack. (The destroyer’s captain was greatly disgusted. When he was picked up later from a raft he said, “I suppose even a B-17 has to hit something sometime, but why did it have to be me?”)
The Enterprise, however, was seriously damaged and the Americans were worried about their ability to provide air cover for Vandergrift’s forces.
Soon it became apparent that the Japanese were adopting new tactics to get attacking forces to Guadalcanal; they were moving troops in barges under the lee of the islands, travelling by night and hiding by day. Vandergrift knew that forces were building up against him in this fashion and was worried. Japanese ships were running along his shores in the night and bombarding him from the sea.
Among the Americans themselves malaria was becoming a cause for concern and fatigue was noticeable. A thin trickle of supply ships was getting in (seven during the first month of the marines’ occupation) and food and ammunition supplies were adequate. Other items of equipment remained short, however, as few of the ships could remain until they were fully unloaded. Most serious of all was the growing shortage of aircraft. Although the marine aviators were claiming five Japanese aircraft for every one they lost themselves the Japanese seemed able to replace their losses. By 11th September Vandergrift’s air strength was almost exhausted.
Early on the night of the 12th a Japanese bombardment from the sea began. Almost at the same time a Japanese attack flung forward on the southern perimeter on what was to become known as Bloody Ridge. There was hard fighting but the Americans were still holding with the morning. The following night furious attacks opened again. The Americans were hard pressed but finally broke the attacks. When Japanese ships arrived offshore about 11 p.m. they shelled the defenders from the sea but, by that time, the impetus of the Japanese land attack had been lost. A fresh attack went in on the eastern side of the perimeter later in the night but that too was broken by marine artillery fire. There were other attacks, in the early morning and during the daylight hours of the 14th, but it was clear that the new Japanese bid to recapture Guadalcanal had failed.
At sea, however, the position for the Americans was not so satisfactory. On 31st August the carrier Saratoga had been damaged by a torpedo leaving only the two carriers Wasp and Hornet to cover the transport of reinforcements to Guadalcanal. On the afternoon of 15th September, as these moved into the waters south of Guadalcanal, a Japanese submarine pack met them. The battleship North Carolina was torpedoed and had to steam out of the area for repairs. The destroyer O’Brien was also hit and sank later. Three torpedoes hit the Wasp and, burning, she sank. The way was open, therefore, for further Japanese attacks which were sure to come.
Hyakutake had still not mounted against the Americans the strongest attack of which he was capable. The original Japanese plans for the attack on Port Moresby had envisaged the use of Major-General Kawaguchi’s 124th Infantry Regiment group in a seaborne attack on Milne Bay in coordination with the overland advance by way of Kokoda. After Ichiki Force was destroyed on Guadalcanal, however, Kawaguchi was ordered to move against the Americans. Kawaguchi Force would then consist of the 124th Infantry Regiment group, the II/4th Battalion and the second Ichiki echelon. Kawaguchi’s main group was moving down to Guadalcanal with the First Fleet when it was turned back as a result of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. The Ichiki group, moving separately, was checked by the marine flyers on 25th August. The whole Kawaguchi Force then reorganised in the Shortland Islands and moved down to Guadalcanal, principally in barges. The main body landed to the east of the American positions but one battalion group of the 124th Regiment under Colonel Oka landed at the mouth of the Matanikau River west of the American positions.
The operations on the night of 12th September were not part of the main attack but were simply preparations for it. By nightfall on the 13th Kawaguchi was satisfied that he was in position for the attack which would retake the island. He probably used three battalions in the main attacks from the south on Bloody Ridge and one against the Ilu River defence from the east. It is likely that Oka was to attack the Americans’ western defences simultaneously with the main attacks. He did not, however, move until the afternoon of the 14th—and then with little determination and as little success.
Kawaguchi lost heavily in his attacks. About 600 of his men were killed on Bloody Ridge itself (where the marines lost 31 killed, 103 wounded, and 9 missing). Later the Japanese themselves reported that they lost 633 men killed and 505 wounded. After their repulse they retreated in disorder. Of the main attacking force some went eastward but the larger number cut a difficult track round to Kokumbona.
The use of Kawaguchi Force against the Americans on Guadalcanal, and its defeat there, did not, however, mean that the Japanese had abandoned their plans to attack Milne Bay. When they diverted Kawaguchi Force to Guadalcanal they gave another force the task of capturing Milne Bay where the Australians and Americans had been hard at work since the arrival of Brigadier Field and his 7th Brigade in July and early August.
Milne Bay was shaped like a semi-ellipse. From China Strait on the east the sea flowed—through an entrance approximately seven miles wide—westward for some twenty miles. Gili Gili was near the head of the bay. Heavily wooded mountains pressed in from three sides, leaving only a narrow coastal strip, soggy with sago and mangrove swamps; bush-covered except where a few coconut plantations stood in orderly rows. On the north shore the mountains came down almost to the sea leaving only a ledge which was rarely more than a mile wide and in places narrowed to a few hundred yards. Along the coast, never more than a hundred yards from the sea, a 12-foot track, crossing many streams, ran for nine or ten miles from Ahioma, through K.B. Mission to Rabi, whence it rounded the Northwest corner of the bay and travelled to Gili Gili. In the vicinity of Gili Gili, and at the head of the bay, the coastal plain was at its broadest but even there densely bush-covered spurs ran down from the main 5,000 feet summits only a few miles away. On the southern shore the mountains rose steeply and again there was a narrow strip of flat land edging the sea, with mangrove swamps and native coconut plantations, and traversed by a track which ran west then north to Gili Gili. Almost the entire coastline offered suitable landing places, though the mangroves of the low-lying South-west corner of the bay would make landing operations more difficult than elsewhere. The place was notorious for torrential rains during the months just beginning and was a malarial pest-hole.
It must have seemed to Field on his arrival at Milne Bay that the possibility of a battle might be the least of his worries for he faced a big engineering and construction project under the most unfavourable
conditions. He was, however, well chosen for the task ahead of him. He was a steadfast and able soldier, by nature courteous, kind and unassuming. He had had over 16 years’ commissioned service in the militia when he was given command of the 2/12th Battalion on its formation in 1939. He had led his battalion with quiet capability through the desert fighting in Africa and had left it for command of the 7th Brigade only a few weeks before his arrival in Papua. In civil life he was a mechanical engineer and university lecturer in Tasmania.
He found work on the airfield well advanced, with the first strip almost at the stage when the laying of steel mats could begin. But within a few days of his arrival on 11th July he was told to reconnoitre a site for a second strip. The actual construction of these fields, however, primarily the responsibility of the American engineer company, seemed to be the easiest of Field’s engineering tasks. The road system in the area totalled only about twenty miles of formed surface, only about ten feet wide. Without any heavy equipment he had to set his men to the building of new roads, and the construction of passing places and loops on existing roads. He found that the bridges, of which there were about seventeen in the main area, were all of light timber and would have to be strengthened or replaced to meet the needs of military traffic, and that the selection of a site at Waigani for the new airfield—No. 2 Strip—involved the building of at least two new 60-foot bridges in addition to other preparatory work. Further a large wharf construction program was an immediate necessity since no wharfs for deep-sea vessels existed. A coral shelf made it possible to bring ships of 4,000 to 5,000 tons to within 40 feet of the shore from which point they were unloaded on to pontoons. As these pontoons did not enable vehicles to be filled directly from the ships the work of unloading was slow and required many men. There were also the accommodation needs of the garrison itself.
As Field’s only engineers were the Americans and the 24th Field Company, his battalions, as they arrived, had to become builders and engineers, and labourers, working side by side with such natives as were available. With the patience and ready adaptability which marked the Australian infantrymen, they set to work; and, at the same time, they prepared to fight, patrolling far afield to familiarise themselves with the surrounding country, digging and wiring, siting their weapons, fitting in what training they could (though needing much, they had very little time to spare for it). In those tasks they needed all their ingenuity for there were no maps. They mapped their own areas as they settled in them, named tracks and features as they explored them, and numbered the roads for ease of reference.
These men were part of an army which had yet to learn to adapt itself to tropical island conditions. They wore shorts and the sleeves of their shirts were rolled to the elbows and thus they were vulnerable to the attacks of malarial mosquitoes. Most of them landed without mosquito nets, which generally had been stowed in inaccessible places on the ships. The mosquito repellent cream which was issued to them was
commonly considered to be ineffective. For some reason they were ordered not to begin taking quinine until they had been in the area for seven days. Thus they soon began to find that malaria might be their greatest enemy. In order to carry out the allotted tasks some hundreds of native workers had to be brought into the area and these inevitably constituted a reservoir of malarial infection. Torrential rains threatened to turn the area into seas of water and mud.
Field believed that his men would do well in action but reported that, if he were to face invasion, he would like the support of some AIF troops. The only officer in the brigade who had seen active service in the present war was Field himself. Only four officers had served in the 1914–18 War.
Signs of Japanese interest in Milne Bay manifested themselves rapidly as the 7th Brigade settled to work. On the very day that Field landed a hostile aircraft had reconnoitred the area. The landings at Gona and Buna on 21st and 22nd July increased the Australians’ expectancy. On the 24th Lieutenant A. T. Timperly, the Angau officer in charge of the Trobriand Islands, told Field that between the 13th and 22nd hostile aircraft had carried out wide searches over his group and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, examining areas for up to an hour at a time from low altitudes and probably photographing them. On 4th August Milne Bay had its first air raid. Four Zeros then swept along the strip strafing the aircraft of Nos. 75 and 76 Squadrons, RAAF, which had arrived eleven days before, the original allotment of one squadron having been increased to two. A number of “alerts” followed on succeeding days culminating in a second actual raid on 1 lth August when six Zeros were engaged first by the anti-aircraft defences and then by Squadron Leaders Jackson7 and Turnbull8 with their RAAF fighters.
Field drove his men hard. By the end of July, following instructions, he had planned a site for a third airstrip and, when the II Battalion (less one company) of the 43rd United States Engineer Regiment arrived with modern equipment on 7th August, he put one of the companies to work at once on this No. 3 Strip which would run Northwest from the water’s edge between Gili Gili and Kilarbo. He had studied the situation outside his immediate boundaries and asked leave to place detachments on airfield sites at Goodenough Island and Wanigela. As a precaution he had stocks of fuel laid down at both places for use by aeroplanes making emergency landings there. He sent a platoon of the 61st Battalion to Taupota to cover the overland approaches to Milne Bay. A little later, still uneasy about those approaches, he sent one company and a machine-gun platoon of the 25th Battalion to Wedau. Closer in, he had “D” Company, of the 61st Battalion at Ahioma and Captain Bicks’9 “B” Company of the same battalion at K.B. Mission.
Field’s task was complicated by the nature of the orders he had been given by GHQ. As mentioned earlier these provided that in exercising his authority he was not to “disturb execution of general plan local commands naval, air and USAFIA forces except when attack imminent”. In effect this gave American troops and some others an excuse for not contributing to the general defence or the protection of their own localities. When the first air raids occurred some of these troops had not even dug slit trenches.
Milne Force grew rapidly. On 8th August it numbered 265 officers and 5,947 men of all arms and services when Field heard that it was to be increased still further. On the 12th Brigadier Wootten10 and advanced parties of the veteran 18th Brigade arrived and units of the brigade group followed, including the 9th Battery of the 2/5th Field Regiment, but it was 21st August before the whole brigade had arrived.
Wootten was a heavily-built man who had served as a regular officer with the first AIF and in 1923 left the Army for the Law. He had sailed with the 6th Division in 1940 in command of the 2/2nd Battalion. Subsequently he took command of the 18th Brigade and led it in the Middle East desert fighting. He had a reputation as an able and resolute leader, for an energy which belied his bulk, and for a quick and discerning eye.
On the same day as Wootten arrived control of Milne Force passed to New Guinea Force as part of the reorganisation which had brought General Rowell to New Guinea to take over from General Morris and which envisaged the employment in New Guinea of the whole of the 7th Division. As part of this reorganisation Major-General Clowes was to command the augmented Milne Force. On the 13th he arrived at Milne Bay with some of his chief staff officers, after a hazardous flight with an inexperienced American pilot who got lost in rain and clouds and finally landed with his petrol almost exhausted. But most of his staff was still to come and it was not until the 22nd that he was able formally to assume command of ground forces which, by the 28th, numbered 8,824 (Australian Army 7,459; United States Army 1,365); the infantry, however, numbered only about 4,500.
Clowes was a regular officer, learned, cautious and taciturn. He had served through the 1914–18 War as an artillery officer and on the staff and had commanded at Darwin for three years between the wars. In 1940 he had been chosen as Corps artillery commander, and in 1941 led the Anzac Corps artillery in the campaign in Greece. His task was, in conjunction with the Allied air forces, to deny to the enemy the area occupied by Milne Force and vital outlying sea and island areas and to protect and assist the Allied air forces operating from Milne Bay. The staff which he assembled was headed by an able citizen soldier, Colonel Chilton,11 who had led the 2/2nd Battalion in Africa and Greece. The
more junior staff officers, however, were largely untried, most having been previously on the staff of the 1st Division which Clowes had been commanding in the Sydney area.
After a reconnaissance of the area Clowes began to readjust the dispositions of his force and, by the 25th, the 7th Brigade was responsible substantially for the eastern sector, with Lieut-Colonel Meldrum’s12 61st Battalion in position round No. 3 Strip, Lieut-Colonel Miles’13 25th Bat-talion about three miles west of that area with one troop of the 2/5th Field Regiment near by, and the 9th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Morgan14) some two miles to the south, on the western shores of Milne Bay. The 2/10th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Dobbs15) was inserted into the Gili Gili area between the 61st and 25th. To the west, on the road to Waigani, was the remainder of the 18th Brigade, with the 2/9th Battalion round Hagita House and the 2/12th near Waigani itself, and Milne Force Headquarters on the Waigani Road between the two. A beach defence area stretched round the coast for about a mile on both sides of the Gili Gili wharf with medium machine-guns from the 7th Brigade, Bofors, and one troop of 25-pounders sited there, and American maintenance units allotted beach-defence roles.
In thus deploying his force Clowes considered that a landing was possible either on the north or the south of the Gili Gili plantation area or actually in the centre of it where the wharf was located; that possible lines of approach were from either the Northwest or the South-west; that the north shore offered the most feasible line of approach. He provided that the inexperienced 7th Brigade should hold in the Gili Gili area from static positions, covering the approaches to it and also covering the beach, with its 25th Battalion in reserve. The 18th Brigade was to be used in a counter-attack role or such other mobile role as developments might
require, with the 2/10th Battalion sited to cover the left flank of the 61st Battalion and to move quickly as required if anything should go wrong at the tactically important No. 3 Strip; the other battalions were tactically disposed to cover what appeared to be important localities. No. 3 Strip had so far only been cleared of jungle and was not yet in use.
On the afternoon of 24th August a coastwatcher at Porlock Harbour, just west of Collingwood Bay, reported seven barges moving east. A later report stated that they had put in at Fona. Clowes asked Nos. 75 and 76 Squadrons to deal with these, but an air raid that afternoon engaged all their attention. Next morning the coastwatcher at Cape Varieta on Good-enough Island told of seven barges landing troops on the South-west coast of the island. Bad weather prevented the air force from attacking the troops as they landed but later attacks by the fighters destroyed the barges drawn up on the beach.
Meanwhile, on the 25th, more reports of Japanese shipping movements came in. At 10.10 a.m. Clowes was told that aircraft had sighted a Japanese force of 3 cruisers, 2 transports of about 8,000 tons each, 2 tankers or vessels resembling tankers, each of about 6,000 tons, and 2 minesweepers. Soon it was clear that this force was headed for Milne Bay. Clowes, deciding that invasion was imminent, assumed active command of all Allied land and air forces in the Milne Bay area, in accordance with his directive. He also placed all unbrigaded units, including American and RAAF ground troops, under command of the brigadier in whose area they were situated and placed one of the 2/10th companies under Field.
At this time Field was worried about the company at Ahioma which Clowes had previously ordered him to bring back but for whose return boats had not been available until that day. Major Wiles,16 Meldrum’s second-in-command, left for Ahioma with two luggers, Elevala and Bronzewing, to assist this company; only three boats with engines were available in the area, and they were small and their engines unreliable. At 1.15 a.m. on the 26th the crew of the RAAF tender which Clowes had sent to patrol the bay and give early warning of the entrance of any hostile ships, reported that, at 11.40 p.m., they had sighted four ships in the bay about eleven miles east of Gili Gili wharf. Less than an hour later heavy and continuous gunfire was heard from the sea.
For Clowes the night was thus clouded with uncertainty: he had no naval forces, coastal guns or searchlights with which to dispute the entrance of Japanese ships; they could roam his waters and effect landings where they wished, and darkness curtained them from Allied air attack. Soon, however, some definite news began to come through from the 61st Bat-talion. Captain Bicks’ company was reported to be engaging Japanese at K.B. Mission.
From the mission, by the night of the 25th, Bicks had sent forward to Cameron’s Springs, about a mile and a half along the track, a standing
patrol of 14 men under Lieutenant Robinson17 and another patrol up the dry bed of the near-by Homo Creek; a third party of eleven men was absent on a long patrol. About midnight Bicks heard a burst of firing from the direction of Ahioma. He was anxious about the Ahioma company to whom he had sent a runner earlier but of whom he had had no recent word. About 1 a.m. four Japanese reached Robinson’s position moving from the direction of Ahioma. Uncertain in the rain and darkness, Robinson’s foremost sentry, Private Whitton,18 challenged the newcomers. They shot him In turn the Australians shot the four Japanese. When, however, some twenty minutes later a column of about 100 men appeared out of the darkness, Robinson was still uncertain at first whether they were the men from the missing company or invaders. He called to them. Excitedly talking they gathered round the body of one of their scouts. The Australians began shooting into the centre of the group. The Japanese returned the fire and some spread into the water on the Australian right flank and, neck deep, began to work round the defended position. Robinson then ordered his little band to fall back about 200 yards. As they did so one group of three men disappeared; they were not heard of again. A second group, under Lance-Sergeant Ridley,19 also disappeared.
When Robinson made a fresh stand in his new position, a Japanese tank advanced down the road firing into the bush on both sides and then fell back to make room for advancing infantry. So the grim game went on until about dawn when Robinson and his men were back in the main company area. But the tank commander overreached himself As he tried to negotiate a log bridge across a creek he stood up in his turret. Robinson shot him from 150 yards. The tank seemed to fall into the creek and ceased to trouble the Australians for the rest of the day.
As the morning advanced Bicks’ men settled into a defensive position along the line of a creek a few hundred yards east of K.B. Mission, skirmishing forward and killing a number of their enemies. It then seemed that the Japanese had withdrawn temporarily. Bicks sent a reconnaissance patrol forward but its leader was killed and the patrol brought back little information. By this time Bicks thought that his men had inflicted about 40 casualties. Soon another patrol made contact some hundreds of yards east of the Australian positions.
About midday Wiles and two men walked into Bicks’ area from the north. Wiles had sent off part of “D” Company from Ahioma the previous night in Bronzewing and Elevala and with one other section and some sick men had followed in a small boat; the rest of the company were on foot. The Bronzewing had run into the Japanese landing parties, had been engaged with heavy fire and forced ashore. Wiles, who heard the firing, was doubtful if many of the men in it had survived as they seemed to
have beached about the point where the Japanese had landed and where, he estimated, their craft had already made two or three trips. The Elevala managed to evade the Japanese, landed its complement and was then abandoned. Wiles, having beached his boat, sent the balance of his party into the hills and, with two men, detoured to rejoin the battalion. Later, how-ever, two more men, clad only in shorts and with bare and bleeding feet, passed through Bicks’ headquarters and told him that they had been on the Bronzewing and had seen many of their comrades drowned or killed. Bicks had first thought that he was fighting 100 to 150 men. After talking with Wiles he increased that estimate to about 1,000.
Meanwhile, back in the main area, some of the uncertainty had cleared with the passing of the darkness. From their positions on the western shore the 9th Battalion reported that the Japanese ships were leaving the bay at dawn and being assailed from the air as they did so. The Australian Kittyhawk fighters were also attacking the landing points, destroying empty barges as they rested on the beach, setting fire to dumps of petrol and stores, and blazing at the area of the landings and along the track to the forward Australian positions. They kept at this throughout the day.
While the air force was thus harassing the invaders the ground forces were moving to help Bicks’ men. It was impossible to move anti-tank guns forward through the mud of the tracks but stocks of anti-tank mines and sticky grenades were hastened to the 24th Field Company, the grenades for distribution by the engineers to the forward troops. Field had moved the 25th Battalion to help the 61st as soon as the direction of the Japanese movement was clear and Captain Steel20 of that battalion took out two of his platoons to reinforce Bicks, followed by Captains Gowland21 and Campbell22 with the two remaining rifle companies of the 61st Battalion. Lieutenant Klingner,23 with Meldrum’s mortars, was also hurrying forward.
Bicks was now anxious to disorganise the Japanese, if possible, destroy the tank which had worried him the night before and secure a better defensive position farther east. Field arranged artillery and air support for him and, at 4.45 p.m., with the Kittyhawks blasting the track ahead, Bicks pushed forward with his own men and Steel’s platoons. The attack drove the Japanese out of screening positions about 600 yards east of the mission. It then advanced a further 200 yards through thick secondary growth and very hard going before coming under heavy fire from other Japanese strongly sited along the line of a creek with their right flank resting on a swamp and their left on the sea.
Bicks’ men were now very tired, and the Japanese positions were strong. Night was coming on. The Japanese had tanks and the Australians had no anti-tank guns or even anti-tank rifles. Bicks decided to withdraw to Motieau, west of K.B. Mission, where he had asked Campbell to
establish a defensive position and where he hoped to be able to form a firm base. The thick country hampering them, Bicks with some of his own men and Steel’s two platoons fell back first, leaving Robinson to fight a rearguard action. The Japanese followed closely and Robinson’s men said that they killed about a dozen who came carelessly along the track. When the rearguard itself came in Bicks passed them through Gowland’s, Campbell’s and Steel’s positions and then faced them back along the track. Some confusion followed as a result of which Steel led his platoons out and left the three 61st companies settled on the west bank of Motieau Creek. Bicks now commanded the whole advanced force. He knew that the creek was not a tank obstacle but felt that it would slow down the movements of armoured vehicles. He commanded a good field of fire across the low, open plantation country leading up to the mission. The sea was on his right, his left flank was guarded by swamp.
As the last light was slipping away Bicks and Robinson took two of their men and moved quietly forward a few hundred yards to their old headquarters with the intention of salvaging the company records and a vehicle which they had left there. They killed two enemy soldiers who were poking about the old camp. They secured the records but the vehicle was bogged and they could not move it. As they were departing a Japanese patrol loomed up from the seaward side of the track, led by a tall soldier who seemed to be over six feet. Robinson, brave and alert and a fine marksman, shot this man and the little Australian group returned to Motieau, under fire.
As darkness settled Bicks had his men fed and tried to rest them in positions taken up in depth along the track. Early in the evening, however, shell fire from hostile ships in the bay began to fall round the area, but it was not accurate and caused no casualties. Then, about 10 o’clock, the Japanese launched an attack in dim moonlight. There was confused fighting. The bullets made a curious “plopping” noise as they passed through the palm leaves and undergrowth. Grenades often rattled through the stiff fronds before they exploded. Gowland’s company, which had moved forward earlier across the creek to meet the Japanese, began to give ground. Lieutenant King24 of Campbell’s company took his platoon forward in support. Behind him Lieutenant Tomlinson,25 already wounded, dashed forward with another platoon until stopped by the mission fence. King and Tomlinson took up positions on either side of the track and there were joined by Gowland with some of his men. Events were quickening now. The Australians could see the Japanese round the mission, Klingner’s mortar bombs falling (fired from Motieau) and 25-pounder shells from near Gili Gili ranging around them. King was shot through the jugular as he sighted from behind a palm and, bleeding badly, refused a stretcher saying that there were others more in need than he. A
companion ran beside him holding a pad to his neck to stop the bleeding, but he died later.
The fight went on. One of Tomlinson’s Brens heated badly. Quickly a soldier urinated on the hot barrel to cool it. Suddenly, from just right of his position, Tomlinson saw a sheet of blinding fire: a Japanese flame-thrower was in action. He waited for the next spread of flame When it came he deluged with grenades the area from which it originated. The flame-thrower went out of action. But the forward positions were becoming untenable. The men fell back to the main positions on the western side of the creek assisting their wounded as they went.
Quiet followed, broken at intervals by sporadic attacks until about 4 a.m. on the 27th. By that time the Japanese were moving vigorously round the Australian positions, trying to work through the sea (up to their necks) on the one side and wading through the morass on the other. As they moved some of them called loudly in English to the Australians to withdraw. About 50 men from the three companies were genuinely deceived by these orders and began to move back to Gili Gili by way of the beach. By 4.30 Bicks’ strength was so depleted, his men—many of whom had had no sleep for 48 hours—so worn, and his anticipation of dawn tank attacks which he could not hope to hold seemingly so well founded, that he held a conference of officers and decided to withdraw to the Gama River, a mile farther west. There he hoped to hold the tanks behind that more effective obstacle.
A covering patrol, moving forward, reported that the Japanese had apparently fallen back beyond K.B. The Australians gathered a quantity of Japanese equipment and weapons, including automatic weapons and a flame-thrower, and then withdrew. Passing through Motieau they found the body of Lieutenant Klingner. He had been shot dead earlier in the night as he fought his mortars. They settled on the banks of the Gama. As Bicks inspected his positions there he discovered a number of men suffering so acutely from wounds, malaria, exhaustion and bad feet that he had to send them back.26
In the morning the Australians patrolled up the Gama River and as far forward as the mission without meeting the enemy. There was considerable air activity above them after a raid by eight bombers and twelve fighters on No. 1 Strip. About 10.30 a patrol from Dobbs’ 2/10th Battalion reached them. The sergeant in charge said that his battalion was moving forward. Then the company commander from Ahioma appeared from the hills with some 40 men. These were the part of the company which had not embarked at Ahioma in the Bronzewing and Elevala. The officer said that he had seen about 5,000 Japanese taking part in the original landings in the vicinity of Lilihoa. He had avoided any contact by travelling through the rough country to the north of the track.
At 1 o’clock Meldrum telephoned Bicks that the 2/10th would soon reach him. About an hour later the AIF veterans began to arrive and
passed through on their way to K.B. Mission. Dobbs apparently accepted the information brought by the men from Ahioma and passed the news on to his officers that the Japanese numbered about 5,000.
At 6 p.m. Bicks was ordered to bring his men out to the rest area near Gili Gili. Gowland and Campbell left first and then Bicks’ company followed about 9 o’clock numbering then only 2 officers (Bicks and Robin-son) and 32 men. They sank over their knees in the mud of the track in places, each man holding the equipment of the man in front to save himself from being lost in the darkness.
By nightfall on the 27th the 61st Battalion had lost 3 officers and 12 men known to have been killed, 2 officers and 14 men known to have been wounded (not including any casualties in the Ahioma company). The 25th Battalion had lost 3 killed and 2 wounded. An uncertain number of men from the 61st was missing. (Among these, however, Lance-Sergeant Ridley and the three men who had been cut off with him when the Japanese surrounded them during Robinson’s initial encounter were no longer listed, for they had reported in that morning. Ridley told how they had pretended to be dead; that, lying on the track, they had actually been handled by the curious Japanese and he himself had been pricked with a bayonet. When the Japanese left them they escaped through the foothills )
During the two nights and days when the Australians on the north shore had been having their baptism of fire General Clowes had been haunted by uncertainty regarding his enemies’ intentions. On the 26th the approach of an additional convoy was reported by the air force. The convoy was said to consist of six ships, at least three of them warships. On both nights Japanese ships had come into the bay in the darkness, moving to plans at which the Australians could only guess, and fading away before the dawn. Gunfire had come from the dark waters, the sound of barges, and the busy noise of launches plying between ships and shore. What did all this movement mean? Were fresh forces being landed? And, if so, where? Were the Japanese embarking the forces which had already been landed on the north shore to land them again closer in? The rain shrouded the scene, drumming through the trees and over the grey sea, turning the roads into morasses. The tropical mists added their gloom to the scene so that the whole encounter seemed unreal and unpredictable.
This atmosphere of uncertainty was deepened for the Australian commander because he had no maps. He and his staff were using a rough sketch which had been produced in one of the 7th Brigade battalions by compass and pacing and had been dye-lined at Milne Force headquarters. Consequently they were not able accurately to assess information as it came back or plan operations in any more than a very general sense.
The problem which Clowes faced was how far and where to commit his main force. His vital area was Gili Gili which contained all his supplies and installations including the wharf and the airstrip. He had so far successfully blocked the approach from the north shore of the bay. He had, however, to consider the possibility of further landings—south of Gili Gili
along the thinly defended beaches of the plantation front or even overland from the Northwest or South-west. At all costs, he thought, he must maintain a large reserve until the Japanese showed their hands clearly. Finally, however, he decided to commit another battalion and had placed Dobbs under Field’s command at 2.30 on the morning of the 27th. Major Miethke’s27 “B” Company, already under 7th Brigade, had taken up a defensive position at No. 3 Strip on the previous day and, early on the 27th, had pushed out to Kilarbo, some little distance along the road to Rabi.
At a conference with Field on the morning of the 27th Dobbs decided to move with his battalion equipped lightly “as a large-scale fighting patrol” to Rabi, thence Northeast for some miles by way of a back track and finally strike down to K.B. He borrowed additional sub-machine-guns, stripped Captain Brocksopp’s28 “C” Company (whom he intended to use in the van) of all their Brens, reduced the complement of Brens in Captains Matheson’s29 and Sanderson’s30 companies to one a platoon but left Miethke’s company with their full complement; despite the knowledge that the Japanese had at least one tank he discarded all his anti-tank rifles, thinking, probably, that 20 sticky grenades which he had issued would be an effective substitute. He set out with his battalion streamlined to an approximate strength of 500.
When he accepted the reports that possibly 5,000 Japanese had landed, he revised his planning and moved directly along the coastal track towards K.B. Mission. Bicks says that he warned Dobbs that he thought it would be unwise for him to site his battalion at K.B. as the country there was not suitable for defence and could be seen from the sea, and that the Japanese had tanks which they could use in that area. But the 2/10th settled into a loose perimeter defence at the mission just as night was falling.
The men were tired and hungry. Since the first reports of the approach of Japanese ships had been received many of them had made a number of moves as they adjusted their positions, they had had little sleep for two nights, their meals had been unsatisfying and irregular, rain for seven days previously had filled the track deep with mud which pulled hard at their feet. Now they had no tools with which to dig in and they settled in groups of three to await the coming of their enemies.
Brocksopp’s company was in the right sector, Lieutenant Brown’s31 platoon holding on the right, flanked by the sea, and the two other platoons,
under Lieutenants Mackie32 and Lethbridge,33 with Brocksopp’s headquarters, actually inside the perimeter as battalion reserve. Miethke’s company formed the left forward positions of the perimeter. Matheson’s and Sanderson’s companies (each less a platoon patrol watching flanking tracks) occupied the two rear positions.
At 7.45 the noise of an engine was heard, and a tank approached through the darkness and the rain, its lights shining brightly. “Put out that ––– light!” yelled an Australian, who has never since been allowed to forget it.
At 1950 hours (wrote the historian of the 2/10th Battalion) the silence was again broken, this time by a high-pitched voice chanting in Japanese from the depths of the jungle. The one voice (and a beautiful voice it was) would recite for about one minute, after which the chant would be taken up by a number of other voices, rather nearer to where the 2/10th lay quietly waiting. Upon the second group completing their recitation, a third group, obviously comprising some hundreds of the enemy, and closer again, would sing in sonorous unison. This procedure was repeated three times. Whether it was some form of religious rite, or merely a boasting recital calculated to inspire courage in the chanters and despair in the hearts of the listeners is not known, nor did the battalion ever again hear this type of musical performance.34
At 8 p.m. the fight began. The tank engaged Miethke’s company and about twenty minutes later was joined by a second tank. Meanwhile Japanese infantry were pressing. The strain fell heavily both on Miethke’s and Brocksopp’s men. The tanks cruised among them, flooding each other with their lights and thus each guarding the other against close attack. Tracer and fireflies streaked the darkness and a hut in Miethke’s arc was set alight. The exchange of fire was intense, shells from the 25-pounders back near Gili Gili screamed over, and the din of battle grew steadily. The tanks moved backwards and forwards through the Australians until about midnight though they never troubled the two rearward companies. They were impervious to small arms fire, tried to run down individuals, paved the way so that their infantry came right among the defenders. In Miethke’s company Lieutenant Scott35 attacked one with a sticky grenade which failed to explode. (Mould had grown inside these grenades.) In Brocksopp’s positions Mackie and Sergeant Spencer,36 a soldier of un-wearied courage, made similar attacks but the grenades would not stick. Spencer, however, then hurled hand grenades into the following infantry.
It was fortunate that the Japanese were firing high and inaccurately or few could have survived in the Australian positions. Since the Brens seemed to draw fire Miethke had them passed from one position to another, never leaving them in one place for more than a few minutes at a
time. Private Abraham,37 manning one, had his leg riddled with bullets. Private Kotz,38 in charge of a second, was indefatigable in engaging the attackers from one position after another, and, at one stage charged headlong at a Japanese position fifteen yards ahead and wiped it out with grenades.
Brocksopp’s men were equally determined. At one stage Private McLennan39 of Brown’s platoon leapt from his firing position and bayoneted between five and eight Japanese. In the same platoon Corporal Schloithe40 found his section illuminated by a blazing but as they fought. He led his men into the sea, away from the light, and they fought on grimly from there.
But the battle was going against the defenders. As midnight approached Miethke had beaten off four separate frontal attacks launched by chanting Japanese. Strong attacking groups were fighting the Australians from many points inside their own defences, however, and the numbers of these groups were constantly increasing. The Australian casualties were mounting, among the killed being Lieutenants Baird41 and Gilhooley,42 the artillery observation officers (and with their deaths the rearward communications were lost). In Brocksopp’s right front positions Brown had been wounded and evacuated, a sergeant who then took over had been killed, the men were being forced into a desperate position; on the left Mackie was fighting hard with his platoon. He prepared to counter-attack with Lethbridge’s platoon. But confusion was setting in. There seemed to be no contact with Miethke and little with the rest of the battalion. Brocksopp (“the coolest man you ever saw”, one of the other officers said; “you’d have thought he was at a garden party”) began to feel that there was no position left for a counter-attack to restore. Dobbs told him to withdraw to the line of scrub 300 yards in rear. This he attempted but began to lose touch with many of his men. He returned to his former positions with a patrol, but was recalled by an order from the colonel for a complete withdrawal into the bush. Then he found that he had lost touch with the rest of the battalion. The adjutant, Captain Schmedje,43 who had joined him a short while before and had been trying to find the other companies and the colonel, said to him “You’re on your own! What are you going to do?” They gathered 51 of the company together, cut through the scrub and emerged again on the road a few hundred yards east of the Gama River.
While they were doing this Miethke, in the darkness and rain, was undergoing a similar experience. He had not had the order to retire. His company was breaking up. His second-in-command was dead. He had only about five rounds a man of ammunition left. He mustered about thirty men and, stopping to fire from successive positions, made his way back to Homo Creek and thence moved through the bush to the Gama where he expected to find the rest of the battalion holding.
Ahead of Miethke Brocksopp had linked at the river with Matheson. At K.B. Matheson had been able only to lie listening to the sounds of battle. He saw many of the rest of the battalion go back, waited until it seemed that they were all clear, then moved back himself to Homo Creek. There, trying to do what he could in the confusion, he, with a small composite group, became separated from the rest of the unit. Then he moved back and at length joined Brocksopp, Schmedje and the others with them. Among these was Corporal O’Brien44 of his own company who had secured an anti-tank rifle and four boxes of sticky grenades which had hastily been sent forward by a launch service, as the road was impassable past Rabi. Lieutenant Teesdale-Smith,45 the Intelligence officer, who had been trying to arrange the reception of the launches, said that two militia platoons were coming forward to help.
Brocksopp and Matheson organised a position on the west bank of the Gama River. Scarcely had they done so when the Japanese came surging down the track, about 2 a.m., led by a tank on which a number of infantry-men were riding. The Australians engaged them, O’Brien coolly getting off three shots with his anti-tank rifle before he was wounded by a grenade burst. It was difficult to see what was happening in the darkness. The tank was raking the bush with fire, and mortar bombs—or grenades fired from a discharger—were falling among the defenders. Then the Japanese seemed to be well across the river, both on the road and on the flanks. Brocksopp, still thinking that they represented a force of 5,000, decided that the rest of the battalion had probably reorganised for the defence of No. 3 Strip and told his men to go back. He himself and Schmedje stayed near the river hoping to collect any stragglers from their battalion who might be in the vicinity. They watched what seemed to be a continuous stream of the invaders pouring along the track towards the airfield. They thought that, in ten minutes, a whole battalion passed. A little later they started westward, picked up some of Brocksopp’s company, and linked up with Miethke and his company and other components of their battalion. The whole party detoured through the difficult country where the mountains pressed down. They were very cold and wet, worn with lack of sleep, and hungry, with only one small tin of dehydrated emergency ration between every two or three men. They supplemented these with the inside of palm trees and, on their last day out, some taro
and sweet potato which native women cooked for them. They reached the main areas again on the 30th.
While they were carrying out this difficult movement the other components of their battalion had made their way back to the Force area. Matheson had gone back by way of the beach. Colonel Dobbs, with most of the unit, had moved north along Homo Creek and had waited there for daylight to come, subsequently skirting the track and later re-forming in the Force area those of his men he could muster.
During his efforts to assess the situation in the early morning of the 28th he had sent back a patrol under Lieutenant Wilson46 to the K.B. area. This patrol found Private Abraham who had been so badly wounded fighting with Miethke’s company. His platoon, withdrawing, had not been able to find him as he lay unconscious. Five times during the fighting in the night a tank had charged him trying to run him under. Unable to use his legs he had evaded it by rolling aside. When the patrol found him he was holding off four Japanese who were engaging him from the cover of a hut. They had originally been ten. He had killed six. Wilson’s men killed the other four. Then it took them three days to get him back to Gili Gili. During that whole time, Wilson said, he remained cheerful.
But, despite such deeds as this, the 2/10th Battalion, a proud and experienced battalion of volunteers, had been thrust back in their first fight with the Japanese—and by forces which, as it was learnt later, were not overwhelmingly superior but which were made of brave and determined men whose plan of attack, centring on the use of their two tanks, worked well. In this fighting the 2/10th lost 43 killed and 26 wounded. About 23 of Miethke’s company were among the killed and approximately 20 of his men were wounded.
Colonel Miles’ 25th Battalion were left facing the Japanese after the 2/10th had been pushed back. The previous day Miles had taken over the defence of No. 3 Strip and arrangements had been made to send the 61st Battalion back to the Gili Gili area to rest there in reserve. Miles then had two companies thrust forward of the strip—Captain Ryan’s47 company at Rabi and beyond, Captain Steel’s company round Kilarbo. A minefield had been laid in the vicinity of Kilarbo and one, farther back, covering the strip itself. As the night of the 27th and the early morning of the 28th advanced Ryan had a platoon towards the Gama River, a platoon at Rabi with his own headquarters, and Lieutenant Schlyder’s48 platoon along the track in the rear, between Rabi and Diura Creek which crossed the road about half-way between Rabi and Kilarbo. Captain Steel had Sergeant Ludlow’s49 platoon backing Schlyder behind Diura Creek, a platoon in the area of Kilarbo village itself, covering the road and the
minefield, with his own headquarters and two sections of the anti-aircraft platoon under Sergeant Parkinson50 also there, and Sergeant Steele51 was back towards the strip, adjacent to Poin Creek. The move of the 61st back into reserve was proceeding (but slowly) until only small elements, including battalion headquarters and a detachment of five Vickers guns, were left on the strip. On the airfield itself considerable fire-power was concentrated with Americans integrated with other defenders at the seaward end.
When the men of the 2/10th began to come back the Japanese were hard behind them. Some passed through Ryan’s forward platoon and then, before the attack of two Japanese tanks, that platoon fell back to Rabi. There the tanks and accompanying infantry threatened Ryan again so that, after a brief encounter and because he was being assailed from the rear, he moved his main force Northwest into the hills.
Meanwhile, Brigadier Field had sent forward to Kilarbo an anti-tank gun from the 101st Regiment to cover the minefield and was trying to get a vehicle laden with sticky bombs, Molotov cocktails, and extra ammunition along the road to Rabi; but the road was a morass and rain poured down. The truck bogged hopelessly between Kilarbo and Rabi. Its crew disabled it and made it into a road-block.
After Ryan had been forced into the hills Schlyder tried to make a stand round this road-block. But as the Japanese worked round him he fell back to Kilarbo and joined Steel’s company. The pursuers followed quickly and confused fighting set in. Ludlow’s men, who had been detailed to cover the gun, were forced away from it. The Japanese took it, but not before Acreman,52 the lieutenant in charge, had rendered it useless. The fighting was close before Steel’s company fell back, so close that Sergeant Parkinson was mortally bayoneted while manning a machine-gun.
Now Sergeant Steele took a hand. Earlier he had cut a field of fire from the road to the coast and had prepared also to fire down a clearing in-tended for use as an aeroplane bay. He held his ground with about sixteen men. Ludlow, with some of his platoon, joined him and a few other men were gathered. Farther back, as the order for artillery fire was about to be given, there came the sound of fighting from about 400 yards forward. The artillery held their fire. Steele and Ludlow were holding firm, cutting down the attackers as they pushed into the cleared areas. They held from about 5 a.m. until nearly 8. Steele thought that his men killed 40 or 50 Japanese. While Steele and Ludlow thus took toll of their enemies other men from their company were falling back across the strip to the beach, some of them covered by the steady Bren gun fire of Lance-Corporals Jorgensen53 and Wise54 and Private Davis.55
A quiet day followed as the Japanese maintained the tactics which they had not so far varied at Milne Bay. They rested by day and fought by night.
By nightfall on the 28th General Clowes’ dispositions had been somewhat changed. In the early morning, as the situation had grown tenser, Field had started to bring forward the 61st Battalion again—a slow process because transport was short, rain was still falling heavily, and the roads were bogs. By late afternoon, however, the movement was complete and the battalion was covering the North-western end of No. 3 Strip. At its South-east end the 25th Battalion had been re-settled between the sea on the right, the strip itself on the north and Wehuria Creek to the south of it. Across the creek a composite company was in position, formed from elements of the 25th, Australian maintenance units, and some Americans. Thus depth was given to the defence of No. 3 Strip. The 2/10th Battalion—except for a force of about company strength which had been formed the previous night under Matheson and now was disposed for the defence of 7th Brigade Headquarters, to the right of the 61st—was re-forming in the 18th Brigade area. The 2/9th Battalion positions were substantially unchanged but the 2/12th had been moved in from Waigani to an area immediately west of Milne Force Headquarters to be ready to initiate an advance along the north shore by the 18th Brigade. The 9th Battalion remained in its original area except for one company which was covering the Gili Gili wharf area.
By this time Clowes and, above him, Rowell, who, in the short time he had been in New Guinea had not been able to visit Milne Bay, knew that the higher headquarters were feeling considerable concern about the course of events. On the 26th, the first day of the fighting, Blamey had
urged on Rowell the need for offensive action on Clowes’ part. Rowell’s reply, not sent for some days, had shown a sympathetic appreciation of Clowes’ difficulties.
Feel sure that complete freedom sea movement enjoyed by enemy compelled Clowes retain considerable portion forces in hand to meet landing south coast of bay. State of few tracks available such that movement forces from one flank is difficult and considerable degree dispersion inevitable.
On the 28th MacArthur expressed to Blamey his dissatisfaction with the scanty nature of the information coming out of Milne Bay and with the progress being made there. General Sutherland, his Chief of Staff, wrote curtly:
The Commander-in-Chief requests that you instruct Major-General Clowes at once to clear the north shore of Milne Bay without delay and that you direct him to submit a report to reach General Headquarters by 0800K/29 [8 a.m. 29th] of the action taken together with his estimate of the enemy’s strength in the area. Please further request General Clowes’ opinion as to the possibility that a second movement of enemy shipping into Milne Bay was for the purpose of withdrawing forces previously landed.
On the same day the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, General Vasey, who was at GHQ, wrote Rowell a personal letter.
The lack of information from you on the operations at Milne Bay has created a very difficult situation here. GHQ get through air sources various scraps of information. The source of these is usually not given, and they generally indicate a lack of activity on the part of our troops in the area. Our view is that these are not worth anything, but in default of authentic information from you we are not in a position to combat GHQ, whose outlook is based on these sundry reports.
Only two minutes ago I have been phoned by Sutherland asking me what reports I had, and what offensive action had been taken by Cyril [Clowes]. I was compelled to answer that I was unaware. Sutherland stated that MacArthur was very concerned about the apparent lack of activity on Cyril’s part. I replied that it was not necessarily lack of activity, but lack of information. ...
You possibly do not realise that for GHQ this is their first battle, and they are, therefore, like many others, nervous and dwelling on the receipt of frequent messages. ...
MacArthur is determined to fight in New Guinea and on the evening of the 26th August we had a conference to formulate a plan for sending 25 Bde to Milne Bay. Now a definite direction for that has been received, and the bde gp. in accordance with the attached Staff Table is now under orders to embark.
By the tone of this morning’s conversation with Sutherland, I feel that a wrong impression of our troops had already been created in the minds of the great, and it is important for the future that that impression be corrected at the earliest possible moment.
Immediately after writing this letter, on the same day, Vasey scribbled an even more personal note to Rowell, in his own hand. He referred to his previous letter, written in General Blamey’s absence.
I have sent him [Blamey] a copy of my letter to you as I feel a matter of major policy with GHQ will come out of it. It boils down to the question of who is commanding the army—MacArthur or T.A.B. [Blamey] and it seems the sooner that is settled the better.
My view is that the decision to send 25 Bde to Milne Bay is either precipitate or too late. Precipitate because no one knows it is necessary and we have continually said Cyril and his army will soon clear up what is there. Too late because if we are to lose the place it will be gone before the bde can get there. Anyway if as soon as the Jap attacks and does what we expected of him the plan is to be changed, it’s obviously a bum plan. At the conference I insisted on
(a) adequate naval escort
(b) land only at Milne Bay or Moresby. A suggestion was made it might be put somewhere on the South Coast. “We want to fight the Japs” is the only known expression at GHQ.
I am now awaiting the result of Cyril’s activities yesterday. I’m dying to go to these b–––s and say “I told you so—we’ve killed the b–––y lot.” ... One of MacArthur’s troubles is that all his navy has gone to the Solomons and he wants information on which to base a request, or demand, on Washington to get it back.
MacArthur’s staff lacked experience in war, especially at the tactical level; they almost completely lacked knowledge of the terrain over which the fighting was taking place, and could therefore make no proper appreciation of the conditions at Milne Bay; it was not the Australian practice to send long “ball for ball” descriptions of battle to higher commands, especially when those higher commands could do nothing to influence the battle, while the Americans seemed to expect such reports, and, especially, detailed accounts of enemy casualties. Added to all of this was the fact that it was extremely difficult for Clowes to get a complete picture of what was happening; the Australians could not see anything of their enemies; they did not know what the Japanese ships were doing each night when they entered the bay; they lacked maps, had difficulty in maintaining signals communications and, because of lack of experience in the headquarters of his battalions, Field was poorly informed of what was happening on his front. It seems also that unauthorised messages were sent out from air force sources and, at the best, these were ill-informed, and often based on nothing more than rumour. Nevertheless Milne Force did send out the usual situation reports.
With this situation developing far to the rear, Clowes was still handicapped by uncertainty regarding the Japanese intentions. Half of his force had already been committed to action and, if other landings were to be made elsewhere, he would need the remainder of his troops to deal with them. However, in view of the quietness of the day on the 28th, he planned to move Field’s brigade again to K.B. at dawn on the 29th. But indications of further attack on No. 3 Strip on the night 28th–29th stayed his hand. No attack came. The 29th was a day of sporadic action and alarms and patrol activity highlighted by the discovery of two Japanese tanks, bogged and abandoned on the track west of the Gama River. At 4.33 p.m. aircraft reported a cruiser and nine destroyers headed for Milne Bay. The commander, new apprehensions of landings on the southern or western shores springing to life, cancelled instructions he had given to Brigadier Wootten to attack along the north shore as far as K.B. with a view to later mopping up the whole of the East Cape Peninsula. Shelling came again from the bay just before and after midnight though it was comparatively light and caused no casualties.
The 30th was a day of new patrolling. The most extensive task was undertaken by the indefatigable Bicks and his equally indefatigable henchman, Robinson. These two, with four others, including that same Lance-Sergeant Ridley who had previously shammed death in the midst of the Japanese, set out about 9.30 a.m. Captain Campbell with some of his men was to follow.
Dead men lay on and beside the track, and scattered Japanese equipment. Bicks passed the bogged tanks. He said later:
With Robinson and 2 OR’s I went on, finding a Jap hospital at Gama River. Here I saw evidence that they’d killed their wounded. Several men, neatly laid in a row and naked with bandaged legs and in one case a head wound, had bullet wounds in the vicinity of the heart. We pushed on across the Gama River to Motieau Point without seeing any live enemy. Here we saw the first dead native who’d obviously been taken prisoner by the Japs as his hands were tied behind his back with sig wire. Shot and bayoneted! We were at K.B. about midday and gained first-hand information of Thursday night’s fight there when the 2/10th were over-run. Many of our dead and enemy dead! We found the bodies of two FOO’s [Forward Observation Officers] of the 2/5th Field Regiment. Also found several of my battalion men (who were in shorts) their features no longer recognisable. They may have been from “D” or “B” Company. Their hands were tied behind their backs, arms had been broken by gunshot wounds and they’d been bayoneted. Pushing on ... we approached 11 Platoon’s old bivouac position. Here we encountered three enemy moving towards a hut there. Robinson and I killed two at 40 yards but the third got away.
That day General MacArthur was seeing the Milne Bay picture in rather a different light, anxiety still gripping him. He signalled Washington:
... this is first test of Australian troops under my command; the Australians claim the Commander is excellent and rate half his troops as good; the other half from the 7th Australian Division they rate excellent; the strength of Japanese forces that have landed not known, but am convinced it is very much less than that of Australian combat troops at Milne Bay; with good troops under first class leadership would view the situation confidently, unless enemy reinforcements are landed, but as I have previously reported am not yet convinced of the efficiency of the Australian units and do not attempt to forecast results.
And, again on the same day, another commander was seeing through different eyes again. Rowell wrote to Vasey:
it is perilously easy to criticise a commander for his actions at a distance of 250 miles. To my regret I have not been to Milne Bay. ... And so I’ve no first-hand knowledge of conditions. ... But it must be emphasised that movement is difficult and ability to concentrate equally so. In addition our inability to sink ships and lack of naval cover, must have made Clowes anxious about the possibility of future landings. So there it is. His first attack with 61 Bn was stopped, and when he relieved 61 by 2/10, the latter got cut up before it could go in. However, I ordered Cyril, late on 28 Aug to put everything in, but I sincerely doubt whether in the conditions, anything but a small force can be deployed. It is true, of course, that if he pulls everything eastwards, he may be able to get some momentum.
I’m sorry that GHQ take a poor view of Australians. In some cases that is all too true, but I wish Chamberlain [Chamberlin—MacArthur’s senior Operations officer] & Co. could visit the jungle to see what conditions are, instead of sitting back and criticising. It is obvious also, that the Japs are the very highest class of troops, as the 2/10 were well above the ordinary.
Bicks’ patrol penetration as far as K.B. did not mean, however, that the Japanese had been cleared from the area. About 3 a.m. on the 31st the dark morning silence was broken by the sound of a heavy “clang”. Startled the Australians fired flares and attacking forces were revealed grouped round the eastern side of No. 3 Strip—the seaward end. Defensive artillery fire crashed among them, and mortar fire controlled by Lieutenant Acreman from a forward post. Stupidly the Japanese bunched themselves in groups, which offered tempting targets to the defenders firing across the open areas of the field and, apparently to encourage themselves, shouted loudly. Three times they formed up and attacked and three times fell before the hail of fire which caught them. They re-formed once more in the shelter of Poin Creek from which they made their way towards Stephen’s House—some 200 yards north of the strip and near its Northwestern end—and tried their now rather feeble strength against Meldrum’s waiting 61st Battalion. But Meldrum had foreseen such a move and had had some of his men placed along the high ground known as Stephen’s Ridge which commanded any flank approaches to the Northwest end of the strip. As the Japanese advanced they came mainly against Robinson’s platoon and withered. In the lull which preceded the dawn three bugle calls rang loud and clear from the darkness of the Japanese positions. It seemed as though the invaders were being plucked back by the shrill notes.
The comparative silence which came with the new day was broken by the sound of occasional sniping and, at first, the groans and cries of the Japanese wounded lying round the strip. But, about 8 o’clock, the sound of what seemed to be revolver shots broke above the other sounds. The voices of men in pain were not heard after that. The Australians considered that the Japanese had shot many of their own wounded.
During the fighting in the darkness Lieut-Colonel Arnold’s56 2/12th Battalion had been struggling forward to the strip, up to their knees in mud along the roads, the first of Wootten’s brigade to move in accordance with Clowes’ orders to him to attack along the north shore—initially as far as K.B. Mission. Arnold’s leading company, under Captain Swan,57 passed through the forward positions at 9.9 a.m. on the 31st closely followed by the battalion’s battle headquarters, Lieutenant Steddy’s58 recently formed “Commando Platoon”59 and the other companies. They met resistance immediately they crossed the strip. Swan was wounded and Captain Ivey60 took over his company. He pushed on while Arnold’s headquarters, Steddy, and the other leading elements destroyed the opposition which came from snipers in the trees, and desperate Japanese soldiers who lay
motionless among their own dead and when the advance had passed over them rose to fire into the Australians from the rear. As Arnold’s men went ahead they saw that the Japanese were remaining close to the road, rarely spreading more than about 80 yards from it. Ambush parties in groups of 3 to about 14 were found in small lanes cut into the bush at right angles from the road. Soon it was clear that the secret of the advance lay in beating the Japanese “to the draw”; that no recumbent form could be accepted as that of a dead man. So Arnold’s men developed an extraordinary quickness in their reactions and were merciless in ensuring that everybody really was dead.
Progress was necessarily slow and it was not until the early afternoon that the leading elements reached the Gama River. By 4 p.m. Arnold had reported that he himself was at the Gama and he estimated that his men had killed 70 Japanese. His own casualties were light and had been reported some forty minutes earlier as one officer killed and Swan and 9 men wounded.
By 5 p.m. Arnold had established his headquarters at K.B. which Ivey and his men had stormed at the point of the bayonet, killing or wounding, they reported, some 60 of their enemies. Captain Suthers’61 company, which had been following them, dug in with Arnold and Ivey. Later Suthers described his progression from the Gama forward, over ground which had already been traversed by the others.
On the way up I met an “I” Section man who said the track to K.B. was clear. As he said this our leading platoon did over an LMG and five men! They spotted them first. A man saw an apparently dead Jap move and shot him. Others came to life and they shot them and found an LMG mounted. They were lying on their faces and backs as though dead. There were 12 to 20 really dead Japs lying about.... At Point King [less than half a mile west of K.B.] we saw the first Japanese brutalities—found a native boy mutilated. They tied him with sig wire and put a bayonet up his anus and burnt half his head off with a flame-thrower. Nearby a native woman was pegged by the hands and legs with sig wire and they cut her left breast off. The boy had been dead about six hours and the woman the same.
I saw two ... AMF men, one bayoneted with his hands tied with sig wire. The other was tied to a tree with his hands bound in front and he had bayonet thrusts in his arms and a bayonet sticking in his stomach.
But while Suthers was settling to a relatively undisturbed night with Ivey’s company and the colonel, others of the battalion, back on the Gama River, were having a more strenuous time. There Captains Kirk62 and Gategood,63 with their companies and a detachment of Headquarters Company under Captain Boucher,64 had been strengthened by the arrival in their area of two companies of the 9th Battalion. The first of these, under Captain Hyde,65 had been told to cover the road in the vicinity of
Rabi and to block off the tracks coming in from the north. The second, Captain Williams’66 company, had a similar task along the road between Rabi and K.B.
Night was coming. About 300 Japanese suddenly debouched from one of the densely wooded valleys on to the main track and flung themselves against the 9th companies, which Hyde had just joined. A savage melee lasted for about two hours. Then the Japanese retired having lost some 90 men, the Australians claimed. The remnants of the band moved east where Williams’ men mauled them later in the night.
Next day Wootten asked Clowes if Field could take over responsibility for the area up to the Gama. Clowes agreed. So a company from each of the 25th and 61st Battalions relieved Arnold’s companies on the river and these then moved forward to K.B. and established themselves as part of the perimeter defences.
During 1st September the Australians patrolled forward up to a mile east of the mission. They were assisted by the willing fighter pilots whose zeal so outran their knowledge of the ground positions that Arnold’s diarist wryly recorded: “Planes strafed enemy positions and also own troops.” With the night small Japanese parties caused unrest around the perimeter and killed and wounded a number of the defenders.
One of the company commanders told later of a mine-laying patrol he sent out from K.B. The night pressed blackly.
Sergeant Jim Hosier67 was there and someone ran a hand over his face. Jim cursed him and a Jap jabbered. ... We lost three men and found them dead next day. It was so dark men walked holding on to the next man’s scabbard. They walked
right through “D” Company and a platoon of “A” Company before they knew where they were. The sergeant, Hosier, heard a man speak quietly, recognised the voice and then knew where he was.
With the 2/12th thus established at K.B. on the 1st September Clowes arranged that Wootten should land there the 2/9th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Cummings68). But he received a signal from MacArthur at 9 p.m. (one of a number of “flap” messages which hindered him in the execution of his plans) to “Expect attack Jap ground forces on Milne aerodromes from west and Northwest supported by destroyer fire from bay. Take immediate stations.” As a result of this misinformation all units were ordered to “stand-to” throughout the night and Clowes told Wootten that he could not count on the 2/9th being available for operations on the north shore next day.
On the 2nd the 2/12th pressed forward with Kirk, Gategood, Boucher and their men while Steddy’s “commandos” worried the Japanese, drove them from some smaller positions and killed nine of them. When night fell Kirk and Gategood were settled on the fourth ford east of the mission and the rest of the battalion was at K.B. There they had been joined during the afternoon by Colonel Cummings and his first two companies as, after the previous quiet night at Gili Gili, Clowes had told Wootten to send the 2/9th forward across the bay in the two small boats then available.
On the morning of the 3rd Kirk and Steddy went ahead along the shore until they came against Japanese defences about 800 yards ahead of the fourth ford and centred round another little stream just west of Elevala Creek. Their men killed about 20 of their opponents, as nearly as they could estimate, but suffered rather severely themselves. Two companies of the 2/9th then arrived—Captain Marshall’s69 as advance-guard, and Captain Anderson’s.70 Marshall found that the Japanese positions covered the track from the coast to about 150 yards north in close bush, a machine-gun and a 20-mm field piece commanding the main approach. The position seemed to be a delaying one, strong in fire-power. He sent Lieutenant Fogg’s71 platoon to attack on the right of the road and Lieutenant Heron’s72 on the left. The attack went in with about 60 men at 10 a.m. and, within three minutes, 34 of those had been shot down, the stream, two feet deep, slowing them up as they entered the final 30 yards of their charge. Fogg was struck in the head and was at first left for dead in the creek. But his batman, Private Reid,73 dragged him from the water and dressed his wound though his own right arm was shattered by a bullet as he did so. Heron,
leading his platoon, was wounded, as were his sergeant and a number of men. Corporal Gordon74 took over the platoon and, with his own section, fought a grim battle with the Japanese on the eastern side of the creek, he himself, with his sub-machine-gun, killing about six including one soldier with whom he duelled at about five yards’ range, each of them behind a tree.
Notable among the many brave men in that company were the giant Lance-Corporal John Ball75 and Lance-Corporal Allen.76 Ball’s body was found later 25 yards across the stream, right among the Japanese machine-gun positions—so far across, indeed, that he had outstripped all others and none had seen him die. There was no mark on him and it was thought that he had thrown an anti-tank bomb and that the blast had killed him. Allen lay dead almost at the muzzles of the guns.
At this stage Captain Hooper77 came forward with the third company of the 2/9th. He led his men up the steep slope to Marshall’s left then came down in the rear of the Japanese positions. His men killed one of their enemies. The others had gone. Hooper’s and Anderson’s men then pushed on about half a mile to Sanderson Bay where they went into perimeter defence for the night. Behind them the rest of the battalion formed another perimeter.
So the night came. It brought Japanese ships into Milne Bay again. Shells fell on the north shore area but caused no casualties.
On the 4th Colonel Cummings of the 2/9th planned that Hooper should move astride the road to a point where the coastal strip widened and then swing out to the left flank to search the bush and give flank protection to Major Peek’s78 company. Peek was to advance astride the track. Little over an hour after he had set out, however, Hooper came up against Japanese positions at Goroni. He swung wide to the flank but then with-drew, having lost contact with Lieutenant Scott79 and his platoon. Cum-mings then ordered him to move north for some 600 yards, with his two remaining platoons, then east for a similar distance, and fall upon the Japanese right rear, expecting this attack to take place between 11 and 11.30. But at 12.30, having heard nothing of Hooper, he called Anderson forward and planned to attack with Peek’s company and Anderson’s. Scott meanwhile had appeared out of the rough country to the north of the track and was to strengthen the attack.
Shortly before the assault was due to go in Hooper arrived back and reported that he had penetrated between one and two miles to the Japanese
rear, had found supply dumps, had been fired on and had withdrawn. Cummings decided to press home the attack with the other two companies and, from Scott’s platoon position, preliminary artillery and mortar fire was brought down. At 3.15 p.m. the attack drove forward, Peek astride the road and Anderson to cross the river which fronted the Japanese positions in an attempt to take the Japanese positions from their right rear. Peek made some progress but Anderson fared badly. His men crossed the river, through five feet of water about 20 yards wide. They turned to go downstream through coarse kunai grass and scrub, which rose above their heads. As they moved on they encountered Japanese sentries. Lieutenant Paterson80 shot two of these men and the Australians advanced against the main positions, but were beaten back. With Anderson wounded, Paterson, assisted by Warrant-Officer Boulton,81 took over the company and left Sergeant De Vantier82 to lead his platoon. They reorganised 100 to 200 yards back, on the edge of the kunai and scrub which they had left to make the attack over comparatively open ground. They attacked again, and again they were beaten back. But, as the Japanese came out of their positions to harry them, the Queenslanders moved forward to meet them and a heavy fire developed from both sides.
The advance of the section of which Corporal French83 was in command was held up by fire from three enemy machine-gun posts, whereupon Corporal French, ordering his section to take cover, advanced and silenced one of the posts with grenades. Armed with a Thompson sub-machine-gun he then attacked the third post firing from the hip as he went forward. He was seen to be badly hit by fire from this post, but he continued to advance. The enemy gun was heard to cease fire and the section then pushed on. It was found that all members of the three enemy gun crews had been killed and that Corporal French had died in front of the third gun pit. By his cool courage and disregard of his own personal safety this non-commissioned officer saved members of his section from heavy casualties and was responsible for the successful conclusion of the attack.84
On this day, also, the Australians had the final news of another loss which saddened them. A patrol from the 2/12th Battalion, led by Lance-Corporal Allan,85 found Squadron Leader Turnbull’s86 body among the crashed remains of a Kittyhawk in the bush near K.B. Mission. The soldiers much admired and appreciated the work of the two RAAF squadrons and, for them, the gallant Turnbull had epitomised the courage and skill of all the airmen.
On the 5th patrols of the 2/9th Battalion were early astir. One, led by Scott, found Paterson who had been lying wounded in the bush all night.
One reported having reached Waga Waga without incident. At 9.15 Lieut-Colonel Cummings began to advance once more with his main force. After Arnold’s men had taken over their position Hooper’s company, with Captain Barnes87 now in command, went forward astride the road with Peek on their left, while Marshall occupied Waga Waga. At 11.20 Barnes’ men clashed with Japanese in positions near a creek crossing about half a mile beyond Waga Waga.
Lieutenant McDonald88 led his platoon forward across the creek. When he was about 80 yards beyond the stream he found himself in the centre of Japanese positions and under attack from about 80 of his enemies. For about five minutes the two opposing groups beat at each other with heavy fire. On McDonald’s left Sergeant Roberts’89 platoon, and on his right Lieutenant Scott’s, were also fighting. The Australians were losing men fast and were ordered back about 400 yards. McDonald had lost 4 men killed and 15 wounded and had only eleven men left in his platoon. In Scott’s platoon seven men had been wounded including himself.
Cummings now brought Marshall’s company forward again and planned that Marshall and Barnes would attack later in the day with Peek moving round the flank to come against the Japanese right rear. RAAF fighters made strafing and bombing runs until about 2.30 after which the artillery and mortars began to plaster the track. At 3.10 the attack went in. But the opposition had melted away.
Although, as a quiet night now settled over the forward Australian posi-tions, there was every reason to believe that the Japanese strength on the north shore had been completely broken, General Clowes’ worries were not over. At 9 p.m. he received a signal from Blamey which told of expectations that the Japanese would land more troops in Milne Bay that night and that more Japanese reinforcements would arrive on the 12th. Little more than an hour later he was told that the remnants of the Japanese forces would be withdrawn in the darkness and that he could expect a fresh landing by two hostile battalions on the 10th. As the night went on Japanese ships came again to Milne Bay and the busy sound of boats hurrying between ships and shore was heard by the forward troops.
On the 6th the 2/9th fought isolated skirmishes. They were now in the middle of what was obviously the Japanese main base area, from Goroni to Lilihoa. Dumps and base installations and all the scattered paraphernalia of a broken force marked the area. Patrols went as far as Ahioma without hindrance.
Dramatic action came again with the night—but from the sea. The motor vessel, Anshun,90 was unloading at Gili Gili. The hospital ship, Manunda, lay in the bay, its white and green hull illuminated with lights.
About 10 o’clock Japanese ships once more sailed up the bay. They flooded the Anshun with light and, as shells struck her, she heeled and sank at the wharf.91 The Manunda was likewise lit up, but the hospital ship was not fired at. A searchlight played over the forward Australian positions and shells fell at many points round the foreshores. Again, just after midnight, the Manunda was bathed in the searchlights and once more the shore positions were shelled. Some of the soldiers were hit, Arnold’s battalion, which lost 2 men killed and 12 wounded, suffering most.
Next day (the 7th), spurred by the warnings he had received regarding the Japanese intentions, Clowes began to concentrate the 18th Brigade once more in the Gili Gili area, having instructed Arnold and Cummings to destroy all Japanese material which they could not quickly salvage. With the night Japanese naval forces were again in the bay. There was shelling for about fifteen minutes, near midnight, mostly of the Gili Gili wharf and No. 1 Strip areas, and the Australians suffered some casualties. Again the searchlights played on Manunda but no harm was offered her.
The 2/9th completed their movement by sea on the 8th and, late that day, the last of the main elements of the 2/12th, who had been left to complete the demolition of the Japanese stores and equipment, marched in from K.B. in the darkness.
For the moment, at least, organised fighting was finished. Only isolated killings marked the succeeding days as Japanese survivors were hunted down, or headed off as, desperate and starving, they tried to make their way generally Northwest towards Buna. But even this “mopping up” was dangerous work.
On the 7th, from K.B., where he had been left while the rest of his battalion moved in the wake of the 2/9th, Suthers took most of his company to Limadi, a village in the rough mountain country a few miles Northeast of K.B. where he had been told some 250 Japanese were in hiding. He found a small but determined party there with two machine-guns in position. His men killed about 5 Japanese and some escaped. Lieutenant Brown92 was killed at the head of his platoon. That day Corporal Condon,93 forward with Ivey’s company, was attacked by two Japanese armed with rifles while he himself had only a machete as he went about his work. He was said to have killed both of them with this primitive weapon.
In the 2/9th Corporal MacCarthy94 and three of his friends caused a minor alarm when they poked forward looking for souvenirs just before the battalion returned to Gili Gili. No one else knew that they had gone. Suddenly the quiet was broken by sounds of fighting so that other men,
swimming or working, leaped to their arms thinking a new attack had begun. But MacCarthy’s party had merely “flushed” five Japanese whom they killed.
By the time they were concentrated again at Gili Gili Wootten’s two battalions had suffered some 200 casualties. Of these the 2/9th had lost approximately 30 killed and between 80 and 90 wounded; the 2/12th had had 35 killed and 44 wounded.
Clowes then busied himself with preparations for the new attacks he had been told to expect, but which never materialised. Thus far the defence of Milne Bay had cost the Australians 373 battle casualties. Of these 24 were officers; 12 officers and 149 men were either killed or missing. Of the Americans one soldier of the 43rd Engineers was killed and two were wounded in the ground actions; several more were killed or wounded in air raids.
Of the Japanese casualties Clowes reported: “It is conservatively and reliably estimated ... that enemy killed amount to at least 700. A large proportion of this total was actually buried by our troops; others had been buried by the Japanese. This number does not include any of the enemy who may have been lost with the merchant ship Nankai Maru, sunk in the bay by our aircraft. One POW stated that 300 men had been lost with the ship. It is not possible to estimate the number of enemy wounded.”
The Japanese landed a total of 1,900 to 2,000 troops, thinking that 20 or 30 aircraft were based at Milne Bay and that the ground forces numbered two or three companies deployed for the defence of the airfield. They had planned to use both soldiers and marines in the attack. After the Kawaguchi units were diverted to Guadalcanal they intended to use troops of the 4th Infantry Regiment (Aoba Force) against Milne Bay. But they could not get Aoba Force down from the Philippines in time and so determined to rely on naval forces only. When Milne Bay had been occupied they proposed to capture Port Moresby “with one blow”, in a combined land, sea and air attack in full strength.
Their convoy left Rabaul on 24th August and, on the morning of the 26th, landed Commander Hayashi’s 5th Kure Naval Landing Force, about 600 strong, 10th Naval Labour Corps numbering some 360, and possibly about 200 of Commander Tsukioka’s 5th Sasebo Naval Landing Force.
Although initially the landings were unopposed the Japanese plans miscarried from the very beginning. The balance of the 5th Sasebo approximately 350 strong who had embarked at Buna, were to disembark at Taupota and cooperate with the main landings by moving across the mountains to Milne Bay, but became marooned at Goodenough Island through the destruction of their barges by Allied air attacks on 25th August. Then the main invasion forces landed at the wrong place. They had intended to land closer to the airfield and, indeed, could have done so with very little opposition. The well-directed RAAF attacks on the 26th caused disorder and casualties amongst them. Their own lack of air support hindered them. They knew little or nothing of the country over which they had to advance, sharing with the Australians the disadvantages of having no satisfactory maps. Nor did the natives cooperate with them. The relentless rains hampered their movements and weakened many of their men. The increasing resistance they met as they pushed on towards the partly-prepared No. 3 Strip, culminating in their disastrous attacks on the strip itself—in which they lost heavily—wore them down. Reinforcements were not available in sufficient numbers to enable them to maintain the impetus of their
attack or to restore the position in any measure once it began to slip from their grasp.
Probably on the night 29th–30th August the whole of Commander Yano’s 3rd Kure Naval Landing Force and about a third of the 5th Yokosuka were landed but they were too late to affect the issue. Apart from the landing of these companies, which together would have totalled about 770, it seems that the main task of the Japanese ships that arrived at night was to take off wounded. The last such evacuation took place on the night of the 6th and the morning of the 7th September when the cruiser Tenryu and two corvettes were in Milne Bay and lifted some 600 wounded and unwounded survivors.
We now know that Commander Hayashi and most of his staff were killed, as well as most of his 5th Kure which headed the original landing; that most of the 5th Yokosuka were killed; that Yano was wounded and taken off by sea and that probably his company of the 3rd Kure suffered rather less than the other units. We know also that few of the remnants of the invasion force succeeded in making their way overland to rejoin their comrades at Buna. In a final summing up it seems safe to conclude that the Japanese sustained probably four times the casualties of the Australians.
Afterwards, consideration of the relative strengths involved in this engagement led to criticism of Clowes’ handling of the operations—particularly by General MacArthur and, to a lesser extent, by General Blamey. After his peremptory instructions to Blamey on the 28th August, and the doubts he expressed in his message to Washington on the 30th, MacArthur, in a personal appeal to General Marshall for more naval forces to enable him to redress a general situation which he considered was going badly for his forces, made the following ungenerous comment:
The enemy’s defeat at Milne Bay must not be accepted as a measure of relative fighting capacity of the troops involved. The decisive factor was the complete surprise obtained over him by our preliminary concentration of superior forces.
Later, in considering General Clowes’ report in October, he criticised both the report and Clowes’ conduct of the operations.
Blamey wrote guardedly to Rowell on the 1st September:
It, of course, is extremely hard to get the picture of the whole of the happenings, but it appeared to us here as though, by not acting with great speed, Clowes is liable to have missed the opportunity of dealing completely with the enemy and thus laying himself open to destruction if, after securing a footing, the enemy were able to reinforce their first landing party very strongly.
I think it was this that give rise to some anxiety on the part of Headquarters, South-West Pacific. However, Clowes is to be heartily congratulated on the success of his first action command.
You will probably have seen my letter to Vasey on the matter of Clowes’ handling of the show, and after visiting Milne Bay myself, I’m sure that he was right. Inability to move except at a crawl, together with the constant threat of further landings, made it difficult for him to go fast or far.
Appraisal now of all the circumstances involved seems fully to justify Rowell’s summing up. Clowes did what he was sent to Milne Bay to do. He completely defeated the Japanese invasion at comparatively light cost to his own forces. In deciding how best to do that he had to make a
choice: on the one hand to attempt a spectacular stroke which might smash the initial landings quickly but elsewhere would leave him open to attack which he had every reason to expect as a result of Japanese control of the sea; on the other hand, to tread warily, as he did, waiting until the general position cleared before he delivered his main stroke. Had the torrential rains not clogged all roads and tracks, he could have struck a series of swift, clean blows with his main force, trusting to his mobility to enable him to switch to meet any attack which might develop from another quarter.
There was one factor, however, in the defeat of the Japanese which Clowes controlled only incidentally—the work of Nos. 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF. He wrote himself:
I wish here to place on record my appreciation of the magnificent efforts on the part of our RAAF comrades. The success of the operations was in a great measure due to their untiring and courageous work which has earned the admiration of all who have been associated with them here.
Writing of the operations to General Blamey Rowell said:
I ... think that the action of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF on the first day was probably the decisive factor.
And it is now quite clear that the sinking of Japanese barges by the airmen on the morning of 26th August was of great importance; it deprived the Japanese of the means of turning the sea flank of the defenders by moving troops along the coast in the darkness, and prevented these barges being used to ferry men and equipment ashore on later visits by invading naval forces.
The Milne Bay operations were important in their results. Strategically they confined the main Japanese operations in Papua to the Buna–Kokoda area and spelt failure for the Japanese plans to capture Port Moresby. This first land victory over the Japanese since December 1941 had a tonic effect not only for the Australians, but farther afield.95 Australians had been able to take the measure of the invaders and found them far less formidable in many respects than they had been led to believe, though they recognised that they were brave and determined fighters. Accurate appraisal of Japanese weaknesses and strengths emerged; much was learnt about their equipment.
Of particular interest was the fact that militiamen had taken the first shocks on an uncertain occasion and had shown that they could fight well. Many of them were resourceful and determined soldiers although, as units, they probably lacked that experience and élan which enabled the 2/9th and 2/12th Battalions quickly to sum up the strengths and weaknesses of
the invaders, adapt themselves to counter the one and exploit the other, and to drive home a series of attacks.
However, although September thus saw the Japanese attacks thrown back both at Milne Bay and on Guadalcanal it was by no means certain that the Allies could continue to hold either place, and, at the same time, the Japanese thrust across the Papuan mountains was developing success-fully for the invaders. From the beginning of the Guadalcanal fighting MacArthur had been left with virtually no naval strength at all. After the Japanese landed at Milne Bay he had to weigh the necessity for reinforcements against the risk of sending them under the protection of a single destroyer, the only sizeable surface craft then available in the South-West Pacific Area. On 6th September he radioed General Marshall personally.
Due to lack of maritime resources, I am unable to increase ground forces in New Guinea as I cannot maintain them ... it is imperative that shipping and naval forces for escort duty be increased to ensure communication between the Australian mainland and the south coast of New Guinea. With these additional naval facilities I can despatch large ground reinforcements to New Guinea with the object of counter-infiltration towards the north, and at the same time make creeping advances along the north coast with small vessels and marine amphibious forces. Such action will secure a situation which otherwise is doubtful. If New Guinea goes the results will be disastrous.
But MacArthur had little chance of getting the naval forces he sought while the struggle for the Solomons continued. And in any event Admiral King was unwilling to entrust his precious aircraft carriers to the command of MacArthur or any other army officer who might commit them to unjustifiable risks. This was a main reason why the first offensive had been undertaken under Admiral Ghormley in the Solomons and not under General MacArthur in New Guinea.96 However MacArthur’s efforts to get additional forces of all kinds were continual. In these efforts he had the unfailing support of Mr Curtin who was disturbed at what seemed to be the lack of appreciation on the part of Britain and America of the importance of the South-West Pacific. This lack seemed to him to stem from the policy “Beat Hitler first”. On 28th May Dr Evatt had cabled to Curtin the text of an agreement between Great Britain and America expressing this policy and then wrote:
The existence of this written agreement came as a great surprise to myself and, I have no doubt, to you. We were not consulted about the matter.
He quoted a document relating to the grand strategy which had been agreed upon, which set out the reasons why the British and American leaders considered that full-scale invasion of Australia was unlikely. He doubted the cogency of some of the arguments used and concluded that the document revealed the background against which MacArthur’s directive was drafted; the strategy it defined was primarily defensive in character; the offensive was to take place in the future. He said that General Marshall
was the main protagonist of the grand strategy which had been defined; that Admiral King was sceptical of it and resolved to concentrate on the Pacific war against Japan.
Evatt also repeated hearty assurances by Mr Churchill of British support to Australia if that should become necessary. Apparently as evidence of his good faith, Churchill had arranged to ship to Australia in June three squadrons of Spitfires and fully maintain them. By the end of June, however, in view of the deterioration of the British position in the Middle East, he had decided to postpone fulfilment of that offer. Curtin demurred without avail. On 27th August he asked Churchill what his plans were for the concentration of a naval force in the Pacific so that the Allies might bring to bear at a vital point forces superior to those of their enemies, stating that it would be evident from the Coral Sea, Midway and Solomon Islands naval engagements that operations in the Pacific were leading to a naval clash which might well decide the course of the conflict in the Pacific. Churchill replied that a Japanese incursion into the Indian Ocean was still possible; that the British had had to move a division and one armoured brigade from India to the Persia-Iraq command; the flow of shore-based aircraft into the Indian Ocean had been affected by the position in the Middle East; the British plans for reinforcement of the Eastern Fleet had had to be postponed because of Malta’s needs and because of operations which were contemplated for the near future. He concluded that the time was not opportune for the transfer of British naval forces from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
Before he received this reply Curtin was informed by MacArthur that 30 fighter planes, all bombers which were then en route to the SWPA, and the ground forces intended for the SWPA during the next two months had all been diverted elsewhere. MacArthur had protested to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he asked Curtin to make representations himself to President Roosevelt. This the Australian Prime Minister, a harassed suppliant, did, pointing out that 607,000 of 1,529,000 Australian men between the ages of 18 and 45 had been enlisted in the fighting forces, and saying:
In the absence of knowledge of what is contemplated in the SWPA in the general scheme of global strategy, we feel apprehensive regarding the capacity of the Forces assigned to the SWPA to ensure the security of Australia as a base. ...
We have two of your splendid American Army Divisions in Australia. ... The total number of United States Army and Air Corps troops is 98,000. We are deeply grateful for their presence but on the general question of the strength necessary for the SWPA, I would respectfully point out, Mr President, that Australia’s capacity to help herself has been limited by that fact that 48,000 men are still serving overseas [Middle East] and our casualties in dead, missing and prisoners of war total 37,000 or an aggregate of 85,000.
The President’s reply, however, was no more encouraging than Mr Churchill’s had been.
I have given very careful consideration to the situation in the SWPA as presented in your two messages ... and fully appreciate the anxiety which you must naturally feel with regard to the security of Australia.
It would appear from your messages that Mr Churchill has already communicated
to you the decisions of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in regard to the immediate employment of the British Eastern Fleet. This employment precludes reinforcement by British forces of the United States Pacific Fleet at the present time. Since it is clear that the United States Pacific Fleet is unable to provide a superior naval force solely concerned with the defence of Australia and New Zealand, the Combined Chiefs of Staff have carefully considered the necessity for and possibility of increasing the ground and air forces required for the territorial defence of Australia. ...
After considering all the factors involved, I agree with the conclusions of the Combined Chiefs of Staff that your present armed forces, assuming that they are fully equipped and effectively trained, are sufficient to defeat the present Japanese force in New Guinea and to provide for the security of Australia against an invasion on the scale that the Japanese are capable of launching at this time or in the immediate future.
The present operations in the Solomons area are designed to strengthen our position in lines of communication leading to Australia and therefore, if successful, should contribute to its security. Projected reinforcements for these operations will further strengthen the Allied position in the SWP and will create favourable conditions for more extensive operations against the enemy as appropriate means become available.
Present commitments of shipping are such that it is not possible to move additional troops to Australia now or in the immediate future. Every effort is being made to ensure uninterrupted flow of supplies, equipment and forces committed to your area. ... I am confident that you will appreciate fully the necessity of rigidly pursuing our overall strategy that envisages the early and decisive defeat of Germany in order that we can quickly undertake an “all-out” effort in the Pacific.
The logic of the general stand taken by Churchill and Roosevelt—particularly in the light of later events—is difficult to assail. More open to criticism, however, is the summary manner in which they relegated Australia to a position of ignorance and voicelessness in relation to their planning. Not only was Australia an active and effective belligerent in her own right but, in particular, she was a loyal and spontaneous supporter of Great Britain—and deserving, therefore, at Mr Churchill’s hands at least, of more considerate treatment. A fuller confidence would have allayed in some measure the alarm of one devoted Allied leader and secured an easier unfolding of Allied strategy.
It would no doubt have comforted the leaders in the South-West Pacific to know that, as a result partly of the opposition of the United States Navy to the decision to concentrate against Hitler first and partly of the need to oppose the renewed Japanese thrusts, far more American troops were overseas in the Pacific than in the Atlantic zones at this time. By the end of September five American divisions were in the South and South-West Pacific areas and four more in Hawaii. Only four were overseas in the Atlantic—two in Northern Ireland, one in England and one in Iceland. By early December of 57 United States Army Air Force groups deployed outside the American continents 23 were in the Pacific areas or the China–India theatre, and in addition nearly all the American naval air arm overseas was concentrated in the Pacific.
However, by September 1942, there was still cause for unease on the Northeast approaches to Australia. What of developments in the northwest where the Japanese had reached Timor in February and where, in April, India had been facing her most dangerous hour?
In Timor Japanese activity did not seem to presage movement towards Australia. There were no unduly large concentrations of forces there, although this in itself was not necessarily significant since an invasion force would probably assemble farther north in the Indies. The Australians of Sparrow Force, who had dramatically broken their silence in April, were active in harassing their enemies and were a fruitful source of information. Nevertheless the proximity of Japanese forces facing Darwin from Timor constituted an uneasy situation for Australia and, at the least, the Japanese occupation of the island facilitated air attacks on northern Australia.
By mid-September, however, a virtual stalemate still existed on the immediate Northwest approaches. But these approaches were only the southern extremity of a line which extended Northwest through the Indies, Malaya and Burma to the Northeastern borders of India—a line which, after the Burma Army had completed its withdrawal across the Indian frontier into Assam by the 20th May, was held by the Japanese through-out its entire length. And developments elsewhere along that line, particularly in Burma where events so closely affected India, were of great importance to Australia.
By June there was some improvement in the situation in Burma and India which had looked so grave a short time before. The Japanese had shown no signs of mounting a seaborne attack against India and monsoon weather made it improbable that they would attempt this for some months, if at all. The capture of Madagascar, though it had delayed reinforcements for India, had removed a potential menace to her lines of communication with Great Britain.
As the year went on, however, the Congress-inspired disturbances of August tied up a great deal of the army strength in India on internal security duties. Another major cause for concern was the deterioration of the Allied position in the Middle East. An offer of assistance there by General Wavell was accepted. An even greater threat to India than that of a German advance through Egypt, however, was the German advance to the Caucasus which menaced Persia and Iraq. In September the 5th Indian Division and the 7th Armoured Brigade left India for Iraq.
Nevertheless Wavell was not without hope of being able to launch an offensive into Burma. As a preliminary he had determined in June to reoccupy Fort Hertz in the extreme north of Burma. Because of the lack of roads this had to be an airborne operation. A small parachute detachment was dropped by air to prepare the landing ground and the occupation took place in September. The latter part of 1942 saw Wavell in a far more favourable position than could have been hoped for in the earlier part of the year with Japan temporarily extended to the limit of her reach.
In the face of extraordinary difficulties, effective steps had begun on 8th April to substitute an air route over the Himalayas for the Burma Road. This “air lift” operated in reverse in a most interesting fashion. The Japanese advance into Burma had cut off part of the Chinese forces which had been fighting there. These were then concentrated in India for re-
equipping and training by the United States. As this project got under way additional equipment for the Chinese Army accumulated. It was found impracticable to transport this to China. It was decided, therefore, to move the Chinese troops to the equipment rather than follow the more usual procedure of moving the equipment to the troops. This “reverse” procedure was so successfully carried out that, as 1942 advanced, General Joseph W. Stilwell, the American Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, had built a Chinese corps of approximately 30,000 men round the original nucleus in India.
In general, then, by September of 1942, it was clear that the Japanese inability or reluctance to attempt to reach beyond the Northwestern borders of Burma, and the growing Allied strength in that area, meant that the decisive battles during the next few months would probably be fought in the South and South-West Pacific. There the Japanese were still on the move, and there a grim struggle of attrition at sea had already developed which was to determine the shape of the future. It was not merely a question of which side would lose the most ships and aircraft. The vital question was going to be which side could build replacements more quickly. At the time, however, most Australians knew little of the true significance of this struggle. The Japanese advance over the mountains of Papua held their attention.