Chapter 6: Withdrawal to Ioribaiwa
WHILE the militiamen of Maroubra Force, fighting hard, were being pushed back along the Kokoda Track towards the crest of the mountain range as the difficult days of August advanced, AIF veterans from the Middle East were hurrying to their assistance. Since early in May the 7th Division had been concentrated in south Queensland. There, their commander, Major-General Allen, had had them at work preparing to meet possible invasion and training in what were conceived (largely from the lessons of Malaya) to be the elements of the new kind of warfare in which they expected later to engage. Allen had been driving them hard in rough tropical country near Brisbane. He was an able soldier with wide infantry experience in two wars: Gallipoli and France in the first; North Africa, Greece and Syria in the second. In 1939 and 1940 he had raised and trained the 16th Brigade; when it was put into the field in the Middle East in 1940 it was the best trained of the 6th Division’s formations. Allen was animated at all times by a burning loyalty to his officers and men.
Except among the key men there was no knowledge that the 7th Division was setting out for New Guinea when, on 3rd August, the units of the 18th and 21st Brigades were given embarkation orders. They were told—and accepted—that they were going farther north by sea as part of their training But they moved with remarkable efficiency for, after a difficult journey by road, the first flights of both brigades had streamlined themselves into ships which were waiting at Brisbane and were at sea by the early afternoon of the 6th. Later the convoy split and while the ships carrying the 2/10th Battalion of the 18th Brigade sheered off to Milne Bay those bearing the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions of the 21st Brigade continued northwards to Port Moresby.
Brigadier Potts and his brigade major, Challen,1 who arrived at Port Moresby by air on 8th August, had only four clear days in which to prepare for the arrival of their 21st Brigade. And they needed every moment since apparently New Guinea Force had received little warning of the brigade’s coming and had made few preparations to receive it. Potts, who had been warned what his role was to be, had his brigade staged into the Itiki area when the battalions began to arrive on the 13th. There he was within easy distance of the end of the motor road, just past Ilolo, and the beginning of the mountain track which led onward and upward to Kokoda.
On the 15th his instructions were confirmed and amplified. He was told that an estimated 1,500 Japanese had so far opposed the Australian forces in the Owen Stanleys and that some 3,000 reinforcements had been landed at Gona on the 13th, although what proportion of fighting troops
was in that total was not known; that the Japanese obviously intended either to advance on Port Moresby or hold the Kokoda Pass to prevent an Allied advance on Buna and Gona; that the 39th Battalion and the Papuans had withdrawn to Isurava, and that the 53rd Battalion was then moving up the track and was due to be concentrated in the Isurava area by the 20th. He was ordered: “21st Brigade will recapture Kokoda with a view to facilitating further operations against Buna and Gona.” On his arrival in the forward area he was to assume command of Maroubra Force.
By this time (15th August) the brigade was assembled at Itiki, the 2/27th Battalion having arrived on the 14th. It was only as they settled in their camp area that the men began to form some idea of what lay ahead. Their camp was an open area of ground in which they could sort themselves out, and ahead of them the mountains rose. They heard something about the fighting; the reflective purposefulness of men going into battle settled over them. They discussed and experimented with the arrangements and composition of the loads which they must carry and from this evolved a standard pack. All they could learn of the country and conditions before them came from disconnected scraps of information, from the study of a single air photograph which had been made available to the brigade, from a track graph which they later proved inaccurate, and from Major Elliott-Smith who had just come back down the track.
On the 16th Lieut-Colonel Key2—quietly confident, an original officer of the 2/8th Battalion who had served in Libya, Greece and Crete and had taken command of the 2/14th just as the battalion was preparing to leave the Middle East—got his men moving from Itiki, the first of the 21st Brigade to start across the Kokoda Track. They numbered 24 officers and 517 men, their carrier platoon and most of the mortar platoon having been left behind with the normal “Left out of Battle” component of the battalion and certain other elements which could not be used in the mountains. (Some of these, with portions of similar groups left by the other battalions of the brigade, were formed later into the 21st Brigade Composite Company.) They left the motor transport just past Ilolo and set out for Uberi. Many of them were carrying loads of up to 70 pounds. This was the easiest part of the track, but the mud dragged at them and their heavy burdens pressed them down so that soon they could feel their knees shaking. The late afternoon, however, found them at Uberi and in high spirits.
The next day tried them sorely, as they began to climb the “golden stairs” which had been cut into the long mountainside leading upwards from Uberi. The track rose 1,200 feet in the first three miles, dropped then some 1,600 feet, rose about 2,000 feet in the last four miles. Of this stretch the 2/14th’s historian later wrote:
The golden stairs consisted of steps varying from ten to eighteen inches in height. The front edge of the step was a small log held by stakes. Behind the log was a puddle of mud and water. Some of the stakes had worked loose, leaving the logs
slightly tilted. Anyone who stood on one of these skidded and fell with a whack in the mud, probably banging his head against a tree or being hit on the head with his own rifle. Those who had no sticks soon acquired them, not only to prevent falls, but to allow the arms to help the legs, especially with the higher steps. After the first half dozen steps, it became a matter of sheer determination forcing the body to achieve the impossible. It was probably the weight more than the climb, though the climb would have been enough to tire even a lightly loaded man. The rear companies, where the going is always hardest, took twelve hours to complete the nine miles.3
Another officer4 of the battalion said:
Gradually men dropped out utterly exhausted—just couldn’t go on. You’d come to a group of men and say ‘Come on! We must go on.’ But it was physically impossible to move. Many were lying down and had been sick. ... Many made several trips up the last slope helping others. We began to see some of the tremendous efforts the troops were going to make to help the lesser ones in. Found many of the battalion [at Ioribaiwa] lying exhausted, some ate, others lay and were sick, others just lay. Some tried to eat and couldn’t.
Early next morning the battalion was on the move again, less only one man (an appendicitis case).
Ahead lay the Maguli Range, a climb of two thousand two hundred feet, of which the track report said, “Impossible for white men carrying loads; natives may carry up to fifteen pounds.” Loads were hoisted on and the thin line of slowly moving khaki started up the range.
By five o’clock in the afternoon the last man had reached Nauro. Some considered that the eighteen hundred foot drop into Nauro was as bad as the climb. Under the heavy loads the jolting caused by steps often more than a foot in height made shin muscles red hot, while knees threatened to give way, and stomachs were churned up.5
At the end of the sixth of such days (from Efogi following the new track which Kienzle had opened) the 2/14th settled at Myola where, two days later, Lieut-Colonel Caro’s6 2/16th Battalion joined them.
Brigadier Potts was sharing equally with his men the toil of the journey. There was great strength in his thick-set frame, despite his 46 years, an even greater strength of spirit behind the round, cheerful English face, the blue eyes which smiled from beneath grey hair cut en brosse. He had served through Gallipoli and on to the end of the Great War, settled on a Western Australian farm between the wars, joined the 2/16th Battalion as a company commander on its formation, distinguished himself in Syria, and been promoted to command the 21st Brigade early in April.
With characteristic energy, Potts had overtaken the 2/14th Battalion at Menari by the evening of the 19th although he had not left Ilolo until the 17th. By that time he was beginning to feel uneasy about supply. He had been told that 1,000 rations would be available at the end of each daily stage—Uberi, Ioribaiwa, Nauro, Menari, Efogi—and 40,000 at
Myola and forward. As he went on he found that not only was this not so but—and the bitterness of his words was foreign to his character:
At the stations at the end of the daily stages arrangements for our reception varied considerably but never at any time were they even satisfactory. The staffs of these stations had in most cases not been notified of our impending arrival and, where they had been, displayed little interest and gave the minimum of help. This was particularly so at Myola where the cooperation of the staff was so important. Prompt action was taken to remove the existing staffs and replace them with efficient personnel. A particularly bright exception to the above criticism was the experience at Menari where everything possible was done to assist the troops, despite the lack of warning.7
Potts found also that, although the cold was severe, only 80 blankets were available at Efogi and forward although he had been assured that adequate supplies of these had been laid down. Pushing on to Myola on the 21st his worst fears were confirmed when he found a completely inadequate reserve of rations and ammunition there and that nothing had been dropped since 16th August although the weather had been good. He determined to hold his brigade at and in rear of Myola until the supply situation had cleared.
Meanwhile headquarters of the 7th Division had been established at Port Moresby on the 18th and Potts informed them of his supply difficulties. Then he himself, with his brigade reconnaissance party, went on by way of Kienzle’s track past Templeton’s Crossing and found Brigadier Porter and Maroubra Force Headquarters at Alola. He took over command of Maroubra Force on the 23rd. At once he sent Major Cameron back to divisional headquarters to stress his supply needs. On the same day he ordered the 2/16th Battalion forward to Myola, so as to have his two battalions as far forward as possible.
Meanwhile the AASC and ordnance officers at Myola had been feverishly checking their stocks, having, they asserted, not been told that the 21st Brigade was arriving in the area. Major Fargher,8 the New Guinea Force representative, arrived at Myola on the 23rd, took charge, and told headquarters that only four days’ rations were held there. Potts confirmed this and added that only two days’ reserves were held forward of Myola. He then had a supply plan drawn up on the basis that he required seven days’ reserve rations for 2,000 troops and 80 natives at Alola and one day’s reserve at Eora Creek and Templeton’s Crossing for the same number of troops and for 250 and 270 natives respectively. His staff told him that it would take seven days to build up such reserves and that 800 more native carriers would be needed forward of Myola.
Thus was brought to a head at a most critical time the greatest single problem of the campaign in the Owen Stanleys—supply.
It will be recalled how, up to that time, Lieutenant Kienzle and Major Elliott-Smith had been working hard and effectively to build up and operate
native carrier lines across the mountains. Although Kienzle’s discovery of Myola had given rise to high hopes that aircraft might be used to carry the main burden of supply, Potts had now revealed that the performance had fallen far short of hopes. Nevertheless it was clear to the men on the spot that only aircraft could save the situation for the carriers clearly could not carry the load required.
General Rowell soon afterwards told General Blamey that, at 29th August, the daily maintenance requirement of Maroubra Force was 15,000 pounds (and that of Kanga Force 5,000 pounds). To meet the Maroubra Force requirements, with native carriers on the basis of a six- to eight-day carry of a maximum of 40 pounds a native, would necessitate the use of at least 3,000 carriers, without allowing for the porterage of their own rations, wastage among them and other possibilities. Unless this number could be greatly increased the forward force could not be strengthened nor could even the smallest reserve of supplies be built up. But Rowell wanted to build up 20 days’ reserves and that would require the transport of 200,000 pounds more of rations and ammunition. Such a carry, spread over 20 days, would demand the use of at least an additional 2,000 natives and still would not allow for any increase in the strength of the force. Clearly the entire Australian operations in the Owen Stanleys would bog down completely unless effective alternative or supplementary means of supply could be found.
Maintenance by air had already been limited by the lack of landing grounds and dropping areas, by the problem of developing efficient dropping methods, and even more by the shortage of aircraft. General Morris had struggled with these problems. On 16th August Rowell had emphasised to Blamey how lack of air transports was a limiting factor. Blamey wrote at once to General MacArthur and General Sutherland. On the 23rd, before Blamey had received a reply, Rowell pressed him again, saying that, since 17th August, only one plane had been available, and that one for the two preceding days only. On the 24th MacArthur told Blamey that he had arranged to place at Port Moresby six Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers (A-24s), one Flying Fortress and two transports. He wrote:
With these planes it is estimated that a minimum of 20,000 pounds of supplies per day can be delivered to Kagi and Wau. There are available in Australia only thirty transport planes at the present time. Of these an average of not more than 50 per cent are available at any one time. Air supply must necessarily be considered an emergency rather than a normal means of supply. Consequently every effort should be made by the GOC, NGF, to develop other means of supply.
The figure of 20,000 pounds used by MacArthur was that which Rowell had recorded as his daily maintenance requirement for both Maroubra and Kanga Forces. Even with the additional aircraft operating, therefore, he would still require the services of some thousands of carriers if his force were to be increased in the Owen Stanleys or his reserves built up there. However, stores could not be delivered by air beyond Myola because there was no place at which they could be landed or even dropped at that time. Even, therefore, if sufficient aircraft could be provided to fulfil all
the supply commitments as far as Myola a long line of carriers would have to continue to operate forward of it. Again a serious complicating factor was that, even under the best conditions, air supply in New Guinea was chancy and unreliable. Rowell signalled Blamey on the 30th:
Weather and flying conditions into Myola which impose severe strain on pilots prevent more than total number of daily trips (by any one aircraft) of two to Kanga or three to Myola. Difficult to operate at will to either place owing to details loading aircraft and need to arrange fighter cover. ... Position can deteriorate very quickly if aircraft damaged or bad weather prevents operating for period of few days as has happened recently.
Such, in outline, was the background of the problem which Potts exposed on his way to assume his new command. His revelations caused consternation both at the 7th Division, where General Allen, newly arrived, had been assured by New Guinea Force that supplies had been arranged, and at Force Headquarters, where Rowell himself had been mistakenly secure in his estimate, based partly on information which had been given him on his assumption of command, that by 16th August 25 days’ supplies for 2,000 men, together with adequate small arms ammunition, were available at Myola. Rowell’s own investigations then confirmed what Potts said. He could explain the lack of air droppings between the 16th and 22nd August because an air raid on the 17th had destroyed or severely damaged the five available transport aircraft. (At the time the hiatus had not appeared to be unduly serious in view of what had been thought to be the satisfactory supply position at Myola.) He could not, however, explain the failure to build up reserves before the 16th and could only report finally:
The closest inquiry disclosed that the rations ... had, in fact, been dispatched from Moresby and it can only be assumed that, from causes unknown, they were dropped elsewhere than at Myola and were not recovered.
It is likely, however, that the rations were never dropped at all and the explanation lay in faulty work by an inexperienced staff. New Guinea Force should never have remained in ignorance of the true position for a day. As it was, the real state of affairs had remained unknown for a week and had then been revealed only through an agency outside the Force organisation itself. Potts was observing basic principles in testing his supply system before he committed his forces. He should not have been given orders which, through no fault of his own, he could not fulfil. His initial orders had been for offensive action. Now, on the 24th, Rowell ordered Allen to withdraw the 39th Battalion as soon as possible so as to relieve the supply situation, and to undertake no forward offensive movement until 30 days’ reserves had been built up for him at Myola. Rowell added that only 300 of the 800 carriers asked for by Potts could be spared from the Moresby–Myola Line of Communication until the Myola reserve was in sight and air deliveries were more reliable; that there could be no question of sending forward the third battalion of the 21st Brigade until the supply situation was sufficiently secure to enable offensive operations
to be undertaken. Such security, his written instructions stressed, was “NOT in sight”.
Thus maladministration of supply undermined Potts’ position even before he met his enemies and had the effect of cabining and confining all his activities in the forward areas. Immediately, by causing his role to be changed from an offensive to a defensive one, it lost him the initiative; it reduced his force below the minimum he required and to a strength, he claimed, inferior to that of the Japanese opposing him; it delayed the arrival in the actual battle area of his tried 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions; it denied him the use of his 2/27th Battalion at a crucial time.
He now considered three plans: to leave the 53rd and 39th Battalions in position at Alola and Isurava respectively and the 2/14th and 2/16th in position covering Myola until supply was assured; to relieve the worn but courageous 39th Battalion with one of the 21st Brigade battalions, leave the fresh 53rd in position and hold the other AIF battalion as a reserve; to leave both militia battalions in position and deploy the 2/14th and 2/16th on the high ground east and west of them. He rejected the first plan because it would mean exposing the exhausted and depleted 39th to a strong attack and the third because of insufficient supplies. He adopted the second—with the untried 53rd Battalion as one of its pivots.
It will be recalled that Lieut-Colonel Honner had found this battalion moving up the track as he himself went forward and had left them at Alola. Porter, in his turn, had also left them there. When Potts arrived at Alola their “B” Company was on the right of the track, “D” Company was on a ridge forward of Alola, “C” Company was responsible for the high ground on the left of Alola, “A” Company had the task of covering the track from Eora Creek in the rear. The battalion had been told to patrol to the right along the branch track which led from Alola through Abuari and Missima to Kaile; forward through the 39th Battalion’s positions to Deniki; along the track to Naro on the left. By dusk of the 23rd they had had two minor contacts only—one on the track to Deniki and one near Kaile. The track leading to Kaile was particularly difficult. From Alola it plunged 1,000 feet or more down a bush-covered, rugged, 45-degree slope to the bed of Eora Creek. It crossed the torrent by
way of a slippery log bridge. Its way up the opposite side of the great V of the Eora Creek was closed in by bush, was treacherous and so steep that in places a climber must use his hands. About 1,500 feet above the creek bed was the Abuari waterfall, where a mountain stream plunged over a rock face which rose almost sheer for about 100 feet; its spray veiled the hillside and the falling water made a great noise. The track passed just in front of the main fall and through the spray over a slippery ledge of rock. On the other side of the fall it edged round a wall of sheer rock which rose high above it. Soon afterwards it came to the little village of Abuari and went on through the bush and over the rough mountainside to Missima and thence to Kaile.
In accordance with the plan he had decided upon Potts proposed to leave the 53rd Battalion’s role unchanged, to relieve the 39th with the 2/14th and hold the 2/16th in reserve.
On the morning of the 24th Lieutenant MacDonald9 of the 53rd, with 20 of his men, moved forward through Honner’s positions towards Deniki. He was engaged by a Japanese patrol one hour’s walk along the track. He reported later that the Japanese let his men pass their most forward elements before they fired and killed his leading scout, Private MacGraw;10 that Private Bostock,11 the second scout, then took cover and killed four Japanese as they moved towards MacGraw’s body while the rest of the patrol engaged other Japanese in dug in positions. MacDonald later withdrew his men as the Japanese moved around them.
Next day Lieutenant Isaachsen12 and 20 men, with Captain Ahern13 attached, left to constitute a standing patrol at Kaile. That night the battalion received a message that two Japanese platoons had attacked the patrol at Kaile, had killed Isaachsen and had wounded one man Lieut-Colonel Ward,14 the battalion commander, signalled orders that the party was to fall back on Missima and remain there as a standing patrol but the message did not get through as by this time the wireless set which had been established at Missima was off the air.
On the track to Deniki, the same day, Sergeant Meani15 took 20 men out through Honner’s forward positions. He found MacGraw’s body propped against a tree in such a way as to suggest that he had been merely wounded. When his men tried to recover the body they were attacked and scattered.
By the 26th it was clear that the comparative quiet of the preceding few
days was breaking along the whole front. On the right MacDonald moved out along the Kaile Track with 20 men but returned in the evening and reported that the wireless set at Missima had been smashed and there was no trace of the men who had been manning it, that his patrol had killed three Japanese, and that Japanese had penetrated forward along the track toward Abuari. As darkness was falling Captain Cairns’16 “B” Company were ordered forward to meet the enemy penetrations.
While the 53rd was thus occupied action was flaring on the 39th Battalion’s front. There Lieutenant Simonson’s platoon, constituting the forward patrol some 40 to 50 minutes out along the track to Deniki, was attacked during the morning. They were quickly reinforced by Lieutenant Sword’s17 platoon while Lieutenant Clarke,18 the “next for duty” in the forward position, stood by. After a five-hour fight the attackers withdrew. Later in the afternoon Clarke, returning down the track from a reconnaissance to the forward patrol position, routed an enemy party at the Deniki–Naro track junction. Apparently he hunted down the remnants of the broken group with cold-blooded purpose for he later reported that he and one of his men had killed eight of them in a native garden as darkness was falling.
The remainder of the battalion was not unmolested during this period. Simultaneously with the opening of the attack on the forward patrol, a Japanese mountain gun bombarded the main positions and killed two of the defenders. It opened fire again as the afternoon waned. But by that time new hope had come to Honner’s weary men for the first of the 2/14th battalion were arriving. About 5 p.m. Captain Dickenson19 with his “C” Company relieved Captain Jacob in the right forward position at Isurava. At the same time Captain Nye20 was leading the second company of the 2/14th into the Alola area where they bivouacked for the night.
That morning Potts had signalled Allen that the relief of the 39th Battalion by the 2/14th was to begin that day and
Condition of 39th Battalion men weak due continuous work lack warm clothing blankets shelters curtailed rations and wet every night monotonous diet combined with comparative static role last fortnight.
Later in the day he signalled:
53rd Battalion training and discipline below standard required for action. Only use for holding objective aerodrome etc. For these reasons consider it imperative 2/27th move to Myola as my only fighting reserve.
At 6.15, with an intensified threat from the right and from the front, and with his own headquarters, at Alola, under shell fire, he repeated his
request for the 2/27th. In reply Allen, responsible for the defence of Port Moresby itself from seaborne and airborne attack, referred to the Japanese landings which had taken place early that morning at Milne Bay, under instructions from New Guinea Force stated that it was inadvisable to send the 2/27th yet, and suggested that the relief of the 39th and their return to Port Moresby be expedited.
As the morning of the 27th advanced Potts was growing anxious about the position in the 53rd Battalion sector. At 8 a.m. he ordered Colonel Ward to retake Missima and Ward told Captain King21 to move his “D” Company through Cairns’ position for that purpose. King did not start until nearly 10. By 2 p.m. he was moving round Cairns’ right flank to attack high ground South-east of Abuari from which fire was reported to be holding up Cairns’ advance. At 3.30 Ward reported to Potts that the two companies were moving on to Missima and, believing this to be correct, himself set out along the track with Lieutenant Logan.22 But the two forward companies had failed in their tasks because (the battalion diarist records) of
(1) Nature of country (2) Heavy MMG fire by enemy which could not be located (3) Lack of offensive spirit and general physical condition of troops.
At 3.45 a runner reported to battalion headquarters that Ward and Logan had been ambushed and killed. Soon afterward Major Hawkins,23 administering command of the battalion, told brigade headquarters that the Japanese had come round the waterfall near Abuari and were making for the creek crossing between Abuari and Alola and for Alola itself. He was ordered to hold Abuari, the waterfall area and the crossing, pending the arrival of the 2/16th Battalion which, by that time, was moving forward behind the 2/14th. As Hawkins moved another company forward to hold the creek crossing Captain Buckler’s24 “A” Company of the 2/14th took over their old positions.
While the right flank was thus threatened the forward and left flank positions were hard pressed. At first light the Japanese had reoccupied the area which had been cleared the previous evening by Clarke and had cut off the two forward platoons, now commanded by Sword. (Simonson had been wounded fighting off attacks during the night and had been sent back.) These platoons fought on. Honner, on Potts’ instructions, then attempted to relieve a patrol from Jacob’s company, under Lieutenant Pentland, which Potts had ordered the previous day to go out to guard the Isurava–Naro track and bar any enemy approach towards Alola. Lieutenant Davis’25 platoon from Dickenson’s company went, guided by
Sergeant Buchecker,26 the Intelligence sergeant of the 39th. Davis met heavy opposition. He himself was last seen, wounded, trying to make his way back alone, one of his men was killed, and Sergeant Buchecker was badly wounded. Chaplain Earl and Captain Shera moved out into the dangerous bushland and carried the wounded sergeant back. Captain Nye’s company arrived later in the afternoon with orders to push out along the Alola–Naro track. (But Japanese and thick bush prevented their movement and when night came Honner used them to thicken his defences.)
Meanwhile, about 4 p.m., there was a crescendo of Japanese mortar and machine-gun fire, prelude to furious attacks of which the brunt fell on Honner’s two left forward companies—Merritt’s and French’s.27
Across the creek they [the Japanese] swept in a swift thrust that sliced through “E” Company’s thin front line, cut off [Lieutenant] Dalby’s left platoon and a section of the right platoon and, swarming behind them, forced them forward out of their posts. Through the widening breach poured another flood of the attackers to swirl round the remainder of the right platoon from the rear. They were met with Bren-gun and Tommy-gun, with bayonet and grenade; but still they came, to close with the buffet of fist and boot and rifle-butt, the steel of crashing helmets and of straining, strangling fingers. In this vicious fighting, man to man and hand to hand, Merritt’s men were in imminent peril of annihilation. But two quick counter-attacks turned that furious tide. [Sergeant] Kerslake’s28 counter-penetration platoon drove out the enemy breaking through the gap and closed it against further inroads. [Sergeant] Murray’s29 mobile reserve raced up to recapture Dalby’s position and was immediately successful. The intruders were hurled back towards the creek, but the relentless conflict in the shadows went on through the waning afternoon until ... contact was re-established with Dalby’s lost platoon which, encircled and outnumbered, had gallantly carried on the fight.30
French was now seriously threatened, his men reeling under a series of hammer blows. But they shot their attackers down until bodies cluttered the small open space in front of them. The first of Nye’s platoons to return had been sent to strengthen Merritt’s left and the second to Bidstrup’s right (on the other side of French) so that the reinforced jaws of the companies on French’s right and left could force out his assailants. The pressure was already easing when Nye’s third platoon was placed under French’s command and Captain Cameron’s31 “D” Company of the 2/14th arrived about dark further to strengthen Honner’s hard-pressed defences and back up Merritt’s tired men.
By nightfall on the 27th, on the right, Cairns and King of the 53rd were out of contact with their battalion and a third company was at the
creek crossing. With Buckler’s company of the 2/14th, the rest of the 53rd, except for about 70 men who had not reported in from patrol and some of whom were later found to have taken to the bush, was in position round Alola and patrolling to the left flank. The day had cost the 53rd five killed (including Ward and Logan) and two wounded. On the left Honner’s battalion was still holding at Isurava with the three companies of the 2/14th. From the rear the 2/16th Battalion was moving forward with Lieutenant McGee’s32 “A” Company at Eora Creek and Captain Sublet’s33 “B” Company following closely.
On the 28th there was little action on the right flank although from Alola Japanese could be seen moving in the vicinity of Abuari. By 8 a.m. 67 men of Cairns’ and King’s companies had regained touch with the 53rd and were in position on the track to Abuari patrolling forward to the village. At 11.30 a.m. McGee arrived and at 2 p.m. was pushed across the creek towards Abuari while Buckler led his men forward to Isurava. By nightfall McGee’s patrols had entered Abuari without opposition and Sublet was watching his rear.
Just before dark Captain Ahern reported in from Kaile with eighteen men. He stated that, after Isaachsen’s death on the 25th, he had held Kaile until dark and had seen the Japanese carry away fourteen of their dead before he withdrew to an ambush position back along the track from which he ultimately made his way back through the 39th positions. His men were exhausted and hungry.
On the left, however, the 28th was not such a quiet day. It had been preceded by desultory bayonet fighting during a night of heavy rain. Japanese fire from dawn until about 8 a.m. prepared the way for a morning attack, probing and testing round the positions. First, two assaults were made on Dickenson’s positions. His company thought that each was made by about 100 men. The attackers, soldiers of powerful physique, were supported by wild screeching as they advanced. Dickenson’s men thought that they inflicted about 90 casualties. Cameron, Dickenson on his right and Nye on his left, also sustained attacks during the morning and made the Japanese suffer heavily. Savage and continuous thrusts were made at Nye’s company, directed mainly at Lieutenant Moore’s34 platoon. Moore beat them back but was killed in doing so.
At the end of this busy morning Colonel Key arrived and took over command of the whole area from Honner (although the latter, knowing the weight of the Japanese thrust and reluctant to leave, convinced Potts that he and his men should remain with Key). As the afternoon advanced Key maintained Dickenson on the right of the track Isurava–Deniki, forward of Isurava, Cameron in the forward and central position, and Nye
covering the battalion’s left flank. The 39th, now only about 250 strong, was disposed to cover Key’s rear.
Dickenson and Nye sustained the main afternoon attacks until about 3.30. Then the Japanese rushed Cameron’s positions and overran part of Lieutenant Pearce’s35 platoon. But Pearce’s men fought back grimly until Lieutenant Hutchison’s36 platoon from Buckler’s company in reserve to the east of the track, counter-attacked across their positions and swept away the remaining Japanese.
A clear night found Key’s men in good heart, confident of their superiority and adeptly meeting Japanese attempts at infiltration. The battalion had lost one officer and 2 men killed during the day and 12 men wounded. But the Australians considered that they had inflicted far heavier casualties on their enemies.
Next day, the 29th, a difficult position developed on both the right and the left. On the right McGee was in contact by 9 a.m. in the vicinity of Abuari, trying to encircle a Japanese force which he estimated to be about 100 strong. The Japanese were stubborn. They seemed to have at least two heavy machine-guns well dug in and protected. Sublet moved to support McGee and took command of both companies. His men inflicted casualties but suffered themselves and could not advance. At 2.15 Sublet asked that a company of the 53rd go round the waterfall in an attempt to fall upon the Japanese rear. Captain King’s was sent. Meanwhile McGee was heavily engaged but the fighting died down later in the afternoon and King
reported that he would be in a position to attack at dawn next morning. The day ended in a stalemate with Sublet and McGee withdrawn into a perimeter, King moving on the right, Lieutenant Campbell37 with Headquarters Company of the 2/16th holding at the creek crossing. During
the day the 2/16th companies had lost 7 men killed and one officer and 22 men wounded (mostly from McGee’s company) in exchange for an estimated 40 Japanese casualties.
Although the position on the brigade’s right was therefore most uneasy none the less the Japanese stroke there seemed to be perhaps in the nature of a diversion to draw away attention from the main thrust on Key’s front. There heavy attacks on all companies began early in the morning.
Dickenson, holding Key’s right, early beat back a forceful sortie. But the Japanese there thrust again with even greater determination. Lieutenant Cox38 of Buckler’s company came forward with his platoon. He was killed and his platoon was mauled. Corporal Bear39 took charge of his remaining men and was reported himself to have killed at least 15 Japanese with his Bren gun at point-blank range. But the Japanese still drove hard at Dickenson’s company. Lieutenant Boddington40 and 4 men were killed, many Australians were wounded, and the attackers smashed through the positions which Boddington and Lieutenant Clements41 had held. Privates “Snowy” Neilson42 and Bowen43 of Clements’ platoon coolly stood firm to give the rest of the platoon a chance to re-form. Sergeant Thompson44 led forward a party from Captain Rhoden’s45 Headquarters Company which had arrived during the morning. Corporal Bear and Privates Avery46 and Kingsbury47 of Cox’s broken platoon insisted on attaching themselves to Thompson and fought with him. Soon after midday the break-through was menacing the whole battalion position. Clements drove in a counterattack leading a composite group of his own men, Thompson’s men and what had been Cox’s platoon. As the counter-attack moved Kingsbury rushed forward firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground shot dead by a bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood.48
Mainly as a result of Kingsbury’s action the position was then restored. Meanwhile, since dawn, Cameron’s men, on Dickenson’s left, had been
fighting hard, assisted by one of Buckler’s platoons. As the pressure increased Buckler himself hurried forward with another platoon. His men beat at the Japanese with grenades and then drove them back with bayonets.
Farther left Nye was sustaining a series of most determined assaults on his three platoons. Lieutenant Bisset,49 in the most forward position where Moore had been killed the previous day, beat off attack after attack while Lieutenant Treacy,50 who had taken over Moore’s platoon and was on Bisset’s right rear, most skilfully parried every thrust levelled at him
The afternoon came. The Japanese continued to attack. Dickenson gave ground. Potts ordered “C” Company of the 53rd forward to strengthen Dickenson’s stand. The platoons of the 39th Battalion under Sword and Pentland, which had just reported at Alola after having been cut off since the actions of the 27th, hurried back to form a reserve for Key although they were hungry and sick. (“When I saw those poor bastards, tottering on their bleeding, swollen feet, turn round and go straight back to Isurava, I knew they were good,” said a member of the 2/16th Battalion afterwards.) Lieutenant Johnston51 (without orders to do so) led forward a party of physically unfit volunteers from the same battalion and reported that he passed 53rd Battalion men on the way. He told Honner simply, “We heard the battalion was in trouble so we came back”.
Elsewhere the defences were yielding. Cameron’s company had been broken by heavy attacks which began about 3 p.m. There Private Wakefield,52 almost single-handed, with his Bren gun disorganised several attacks and inspired all about him. But the Japanese came through and swung to the rear of Nye’s position. Treacy’s men swept down and drove them back. Bisset, with Lieutenant Thurgood53 and some of the fragments of Cameron’s company in touch on his right, was heavily assailed about 5. All told that day his men repulsed eleven separate attacks, each, they estimated, of a company strength. They calculated that they struck down at least 200 Japanese. But, in the latest attack, Bisset himself was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. On his left rear Lieutenant Mason’s54 platoon was being beaten back. Mason’s men had taken part in four counter-attacks during the afternoon, swaying and surging in bitter defence and counter-thrust. In that platoon acting-Corporal McCallum55 had been the dominating figure. Now, with a Bren in one hand, a Tommy-gun in the other, he flailed his attackers from their very midst, covering the withdrawal of his
comrades, the Japanese literally reaching for him so that part of his equipment was wrenched off in their hands as he smashed them down. His friends said that he killed 40 Japanese and saved a third of the platoon before he himself came back.
Key was in a most serious position as night came. He had been forced to re-form his positions and his enemies were menacing him gravely from the high ground on his left. At 7.30 p.m. Potts who, in view of the desperate circumstances, had decided merely to hold on the right flank and commit all his reserves to help Key, told Key that he would counter-attack with two companies of Lieut-Colonel Caro’s 2/16th Battalion at first light. But Key could not hold and at 8.45 p.m. asked permission to withdraw to Isurava Rest House ridge (a little less than half-way back to Alola). Honner was sent back to reconnoitre the position to which the withdrawal would take place. Captains Goldsmith56 and Langridge57 moved their 2/16th “C” and “D” Companies forward to cover Key’s withdrawal, which was carried out during the night, the men bearing their wounded with them in conditions of the greatest difficulty. Among these was the dying Lieutenant Bisset, one of the best-loved officers of the battalion.
During the day Key had lost 2 officers and 10 men known to have been killed, 3 officers and 45 men wounded, while the numbers “missing” were high. Among the missing were Lieutenants Pearce and Gardner58 with portion of Cameron’s company. They and their men had last been heard of, isolated and fighting hard forward of the main company positions. Key claimed some 550 Japanese casualties for the day’s fighting.
While events were pressing thus heavily on Brigadier Potts he had signalled Allen that he could not extricate the 39th from the forward area (without leaving the 2/14th dangerously alone) and that both Key and Honner reported the Japanese attacking in superior numbers. The previous day he had told Allen that the 53rd was badly disorganised and that he was convinced that they could not be relied on to fight, had repeated his request for the 2/27th and had said that he would return the 39th to Myola next day. Now he asked again for the 2/27th and for more carriers and air drops to ease his wretched maintenance position. Just before midnight on the 29th Allen replied that battalion headquarters and two companies of the 2/27th would go forward under Lieut-Colonel Cooper59 next day and that he would let Potts have a decision regarding the remainder of the battalion when the operations at Milne Bay had crystallised. He was anxious about the number of carriers but said that he was arranging for an additional 500 to go forward and that considerable air drops had taken place during the day. He stressed the need to send the 39th back to Myola as soon as possible to ease the supply problem, told Potts that he was hoping to get the 53rd out at an early date and
that, meanwhile, Major Cameron had been promoted and was coming forward again to assume command of that ineffective unit.
With the withdrawal to the Rest House the first phase of the campaign of the 21st Brigade came to an end in temporary defeat. But lack of fighting quality on the part of the brigade was not one of the reasons. The delay which was forced on the newcomers at Myola through the supply situation was certainly one of the prime reasons since Potts, never able to develop a firm base, was forced to commit his brigade, company by company, as they arrived, in an effort to extricate the 53rd and 39th Battalions. Thus he was never able to regain the initiative lost before the arrival of his men. Another reason was weak patrolling particularly by the 53rd Battalion who, by half-hearted reconnaissance and fighting on both the right flank and to Naro Ridge on the left flank, allowed their enemies to secure the high ground on both flanks from which Potts, because of the commitments he was forced to make as his companies arrived, was never able to dislodge them. If another reliable battalion had been available to him he could probably have secured his main positions by using it to drive the Japanese from these commanding locations. Contributing minor factors were the disadvantage at which the Australian battalions were placed through lack of equipment of various kinds. They had no green uniforms and so were easy targets for enemies whom they could not see until they were almost face to face with them. They were forced to use bayonets, steel helmets and empty tins with which to try to dig positions which could give them little protection.
Well-trained, aggressive and hardy Japanese closely followed the withdrawal on the 30th. About 9.30 a.m., from the right, they opened fire on Alola with machine-guns sited in the vicinity of Abuari. There McGee was again held in a clearing above the village with Sublet’s company, temporarily under Captain Wright,60 trying to work round him. They waited for King’s attack to develop but, at midday, that 53rd Battalion officer reported that he could make no progress in the rough country and had gone into a defensive position. Sublet, still feeling unsuccessfully for his opponents’ flanks, had reported at 11.30 that the Japanese had infiltrated to the area between the waterfall and Alola. Now, when he heard that he could expect nothing from King, he and McGee attacked. They were not successful. They persisted, but lost men and made no progress. As men fell wounded Private Myhre,61 in great personal danger, was assiduous in caring for them.
During this fighting Lieutenant Gerke’s62 platoon was ambushed as they moved into the attack through dense and confused country. A burst of machine-gun fire killed Corporal Clarke.63 Private Maidment64 coolly
collected grenades from Clarke’s pouches, and, disregarding heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, dashed up the slope towards the Japanese positions. He was badly wounded in the chest almost at once, but destroyed several posts and continued throwing grenades until none were left. The Japanese immediately began to press forward, but Maidment seized Clarke’s sub-machine-gun and, standing in the centre of the track, engaged the Japanese and halted them. When Maidment had emptied his magazine Sergeant Morris65 continued firing into the Japanese. The two saved many lives and were largely instrumental in extracting the platoon from a most difficult position, although it was now cut off from the rest of the company.
Late in the afternoon the forces on the Abuari Track were ordered to withdraw to the “main track where Goldsmith’s company, less a platoon, and Langridge’s were now in position round Alola. But Sublet and the others with him found the going hard. The cliffs and crags among which they had been fighting beetled behind them, dark, wet bush pressed about them, only a few logs spanned the creek as a bridge, the track to Alola was just a faint mark merged with the bush on the steep hillside. Those who crossed the bridge did so by crawling on their hands and knees. On the other side many lost the track and blundered in circles back to their starting-point. Some reached Alola; others began to fumble back up the line of the creek; a stretcher-bearer, Private Roy Turner,66 carried a wounded man on his back. The orders to withdraw had not reached Captain Wright and some of his men, and Gerke and his platoon, were still out of contact.
There was an even more rapid deterioration on the left. Morning had found Key in perimeter defence at the Rest House. He had the 39th Battalion—numbering only 150 fighting men at midday after the mast unfit had been started back to Myola—“C” Company of the 53rd, his own battalion, and one platoon from the 2/16th in the forward left flank position. He did not have enough men to cover the high ground on the left. Early in the afternoon the Japanese pressed down from that direction and forced the platoon of the 2/16th back into the perimeter. They were by-passing the most forward positions and driving at Key’s rear where Cameron and Honner’s men were holding. At 3 p.m. Potts ordered a
withdrawal to Eora Creek; Dickenson’s company and Cameron’s (the latter now consisting only of 2 officers and 32 men), with the 2/16th platoon, were to clear any Japanese there off the track to make this withdrawal possible. As they swept forward at 4.50 p.m. the Japanese flung themselves against Buckler and Nye, who were holding the rear, and against battalion headquarters. A melee ensued in the small area which Key had been holding. As Key with his headquarters was ready to move, fire swept across the track and forced him and his group down the side of the precipitous V of Eora Creek.
Two companies of the 2/16th commanded by Captains Goldsmith and Langridge covered the withdrawal of the main 2/14th Battalion force out of the Alola area. McGee and Sublet were still out along the Abuari Track. Key himself, Captain Hall67 (adjutant), Lieutenant S. Y. Bisset68 (Intelligence officer), Warrant-Officer Tipton69 (regimental sergeant major), and men of battalion headquarters, did not pass through with the rest. Neither did a group of Nye’s men under Lieutenant Treacy who had remained to attend and bring out the wounded, nor Captain Buckler and some of his company who also had remained to protect the casualties and fight any necessary rearguard action. It was almost an hour after Nye’s departure that Buckler, now in charge of the whole party which consisted of himself, Lieutenants Treacy and Butler70 and 41 men began to move back. But the Japanese had closed in on the track. Sergeant Gwillim71 patrolled forward in the darkness to clear the way out. He was ambushed. Three of his men were killed, Gwillim himself, Corporal Metson72 and Corporal Dick Smith73 were wounded.74
This bitter 30th day of August cost the 2/14th dear. As it passed it was definitely known that 10 men had been killed and 18 wounded on the day; 172 were “missing” (including the commander, the adjutant, the Intelligence officer, the regimental sergeant major, Captain Buckler, Lieutenants Treacy, Butler, Pearce, Gardner, and Davis).
By the morning of the 31st August the remnants of the 2/14th were in position about a mile south of Alola, the brigade headquarters had been set up half-way between Alola and Eora Creek, the 53rd Battalion, sent out of battle, had been ordered to return to Myola, Goldsmith’s and Langridge’s companies and the headquarters of the 2/16th had passed through the forward positions and were astride the track near brigade.
By 8.30 a.m. McGee’s, Sublet’s and Campbell’s men who had been withdrawing along the creek bed to the east of the track were beginning to come in. By early afternoon the 2/14th were moving back again (through the 39th Battalion which was holding at Eora Creek) to positions just south of Eora Creek with Potts’ headquarters near by. While they did this the 2/16th Battalion maintained their positions, with elements of the companies from the Abuari Track still coming in, but moved back about three-quarters of an hour’s march at nightfall.
During this period the Japanese showed every evidence of preparing for a large-scale advance, working hard themselves and driving the natives to widen tracks and make them more passable, establishing camps within sight of the Australians. Potts asked for air attacks on these tempting targets but effective support of that kind was difficult in such country. He asked also for evacuation by air of the wounded, whose increasing numbers were becoming as much of an anxiety to him as his lack of adequate supplies. But this could not be arranged. He had, however, the support of a loyal and able medical team headed by Major Magarey.75
Magarey had landed at Port Moresby on 14th August with the 2/6th Field Ambulance, and four days later had set out for the front accompanied by Captain Oldham76 and 31 men. On his way he established medical staging posts, each manned by two orderlies, at Uberi, Ioribaiwa, Nauro, Menari and Efogi, a holding post under Oldham at Myola, and then, accompanied by a medical NCO, went on towards Alola. At Templeton’s Crossing Magarey ordered that the holding post be reduced to a staging post and 36 sick and lightly wounded men be sent back to Myola, where Oldham would hold such men likely to be fit to return to their units within a week or ten days, and arrange the evacuation of the remainder to Moresby.
By the time Magarey arrived at Alola late on the 24th an RAP of the 39th Battalion under Captain Shera was established just forward of Isurava; Captain Hogan77 of the 53rd had a post at Alola; an improvised advanced dressing station under Captain Waltman was operating at Isurava, while Captain McLaren was in charge of a miniature ADS at Eora Creek and up till that time had been overseeing the convalescent camp at Templeton’s Crossing. Most of the wounded appeared to Magarey to be capable of walking, but what stretcher cases there were had been carried by native bearers or natives of the PIB to Isurava, where essential surgery was being performed by Wallman.
In any case casualties appeared to be very light (noted Magarey) and few serious wounds had reached medical aid. No fractures had been met with. The general condition of wounds was good, probably owing to the extensive use of sulphanilamide, both locally and orally.
The medical plan which Magarey then clarified after close consultation with Brigadier Potts had the unusual feature of depending on evacuation forward, based as it was on Potts’ plan to retake Kokoda. If that hope was realised casualties could be flown out over the mountains. Hence casualties were held as far forward as possible to minimise the labours of regimental and native stretcher bearers.
On the 26th August, however, fire falling at Isurava Rest House forced Waltman to withdraw his patients and installations to Eora Creek, a long carry from the forward posts of some nine hours. Meanwhile the RAP of the 2/14th Battalion under Captain Duffy78 had been established at Isurava, and on the 27th that of the 2/16th Battalion under Captain Steward79 was set up at Alola where Steward, in addition to receiving casualties from his battalion in the Abuari area, would assist Hogan in his dual role of staging through casualties to Eora Creek. Major Watson of the PIB made available four teams of native stretcher bearers each under a European, and two of these were sent to Duffy at Isurava whither Captain Shera was now preparing to withdraw with the 39th Battalion, and two were based at Alola to help with casualties from Abuari.
With the intensification of the fighting on the 28th Duffy reported increasing numbers of casualties passing through his post but, as yet, no serious overstraining of the evacuation line. The carry from his post to Alola, however, was only some two to three hours while that from Alola to Eora Creek was about 6 hours. This position was aggravated by the fact that different supply lines were operating over the two stages with consequent greater difficulties in arranging for the return of the wounded from Alola. One result was that casualties began to bank up at Alola and the position was made more difficult as an inflow of wounded from the 2/16th Battalion began. This position was nevertheless not unduly serious as long as sufficient overhead cover for the patients was available. But next day (29th) searching machine-gun fire from across the valley swept over Hogan’s and Steward’s posts wounding 5 and killing one. The youthful Hogan, shot through both legs, was himself among the wounded. Later in the day Brigadier Potts told Magarey that the 2/14th had been outflanked and his own headquarters was under fire from the high ground north of Alola. He was moving his force back and this involved moving all wounded out of Alola. At the time there were 12 lying cases being held there. By using all the available carriers, some of the Papuans and some 39th Battalion men, the medical people got all these cases moving out of Alola, but the progress of the stricken men along the congested track was slow—particularly that of those being borne by Australians who found that they could neither carry with the same speed or the same ease as the sure-footed natives, became more exhausted and could not carry the wounded men in the same comfort. The stretcher cases therefore
spent the night on the track to Eora Creek. On the morning of the 30th Captain Grahamslaw sent 140 natives forward from Eora Creek under Warrant-Officer Lord. But by the time Lord reached the stretchers (now increased in numbers by fresh 2/14th Battalion casualties) he found that he had only about 20 natives with him, sufficient in fact to carry only two stretcher cases. The indefatigable Lord, however, ranged wide in search of his carriers and finally got all the stretchers moving back once more.
It quickly became clear that the withdrawal would continue and that all stretcher cases would have to be carried to Myola. Because it seemed likely that aircraft could land there a request was sent to divisional head-quarters to arrange air evacuation from that point. Magarey was working then on information from Potts that he would probably have up to four days to clear Eora Creek and planned to make the fullest possible use for medical evacuations of the native carriers bringing supplies forward—since no natives were available exclusively for medical work. The plan was operating on the same day and, by about 2 p.m., 10 stretcher cases were moving from Eora Creek to Templeton’s Crossing, leaving about 25 still to be moved with two or three days still in hand. But about 4.30 p.m. on the 30th the medical officers were told that the 2/14th was even then falling back to a position behind Eora Creek and, by the next morning at the very latest, the 2/16th would be coming back through the 2/14th. As the Eora Creek village was in a very exposed position it was essential to get the wounded at least some of the way up the hill in their rear before dark. By this time more than 30 stretcher cases were at the medical post. By an extraordinary effort these were all moving along the track by nightfall—a few walking, each held up by two other soldiers walking beside him, some being carried by men of the PIB, some borne by natives who had been carrying supplies.
While this was going on (wrote Magarey afterwards) Captain McLaren reported that there were 3 patients—two with abdominal wounds and one with a sucking chest wound—who were extremely unlikely to live. ... Because of the extreme shortage of labour, Captain McLaren was instructed to give each of these patients morphia.... As Captain McLaren was leaving with the remainder of the personnel and equipment the advisability of a further dose was considered, but as all of them appeared moribund, and supplies of morphia were getting low, this was decided against. ... As dusk approached the three patients ... were again examined and it was considered probable that none would live for more than half an hour. As no more patients were likely to arrive in Eora Creek, it was decided to move up the hill to make sure that all patients had reached the staging post and were being adequately attended to. This was found not to be the case; several stretcher cases were found abandoned two or three hundred yards up the hill. An attempt was made to reach the staging post to get natives to return for these cases; but this was eventually abandoned owing to the inability to see or keep on the track in the dark. After some time a group of PIB with a European in charge was found with three stretcher cases somewhere above brigade headquarters. A torch was borrowed from Sigs and PIB sent down to bring up the abandoned stretchers, which they did. ... [On 31st August] the three patients left for dead in Eora Creek were examined. Two were dead but the lower abdominal wound ... asked whether he was to be left behind!! Arrangements were made with WO Lord to get him out, which was done. This man lived for several days but died before reaching the road-head.
As darkness approached on the 31st all the stretcher cases, except a few late arrivals, were on the way from Templeton’s Crossing to Myola, a special relay of 300 native carriers having been sent down from Myola for them. Wallman and his team moved with them, the orderlies distributed on a basis of one to every two or three stretchers. McLaren and a few orderlies remained at Templeton’s Crossing to handle any new arrivals there and a special band of natives was made available for evacuation from the most forward positions. These were in the charge of two competent warrant-officers, Preece80 and Davies81 of Angau who continued their work throughout the whole of the withdrawal. At 5.30 p.m. Magarey received a message from Colonel Norris,82 the senior medical officer of 7th Division, that air evacuation from Myola was impossible. Magarey at once ordered Oldham to send out overland from Myola to Moresby as many as possible of the casualties he was holding. Next morning, when Potts told Magarey that he could not hold Myola and that Magarey would have to clear all his patients from Myola as quickly as possible, the latter arranged for Major Brummitt,83 who had just come forward with a second detachment of the 2/6th Field Ambulance, to set up an Advanced Dressing Station at Efogi. He was merely to stage patients through to the main medical post at Menari which Wallman and McLaren were to run until Oldham, who was moving back with the patients, arrived there.
By the morning of 1st September Caro of the 2/16th had his men in a new position farther back toward Eora Creek with Goldsmith’s company forward. Goldsmith was under increasing stress when the battalion began to withdraw again through Honner’s front to the high ground above Eora Creek, and was subsequently cut off with 75 of his troops. Fire whipping the crossing killed Lieutenant Paterson84 of Langridge’s company and wounded several of his men after they had covered the passage for others of their battalion. By midday the main body of the battalion was overlooking the village, where Lieutenant Gerke and his platoon, who had been missing since 30th August, rejoined them; they reported that they had killed several Japanese on their way back and brought with them the 53rd Battalion signalmen who had been surprised at Missima on the 24th and had been wandering in wild country, bootless, without arms and very hungry.
During the day the Japanese toiled increasingly against the 2/16th who, on the high ridges, were cut off from the water below and suffered greatly from thirst. Most of the weight of the attacks was directed towards
Langridge’s company in the right forward positions. The Japanese stormed at them again and again until midnight. There Sergeant Duncan85 and his platoon bore much of the brunt and Warrant-Officer Haddy86 proved himself a cool leader. The 2/16th held, as ordered, until 6 o’clock next morning.
For the other battalions the day was fairly quiet. The 2/14th (Captain Rhoden now acting as commander) had fallen back behind Caro’s battalion and was half-way between Eora Creek and Templeton’s Crossing. From that point Rhoden sent out Lieutenant McIlroy87 and 20 men to watch the old track along the ridge west of Eora Creek to Kagi. They were to remain in position there for three days or until relieved, whichever was the sooner.88 Honner had been ordered to Kagi to reconnoitre and cover the tracks leading through there and was moving hip men rapidly in a forced march. The 53rd were making a dispirited way to Myola where, on arrival on the 2nd, they were to be relieved of all automatic weapons, rifles and equipment and whence, leaving one company for carrying and guard duties, they were to continue to Port Moresby.
At this stage Potts considered his position afresh. His brigade was pathetically depleted. They had had nearly a week of constant fighting and during that time most of them had been unable even to brew themselves a mug of tea and certainly had not had a hot meal. Now, shelterless, their feet pulpy and shrivelled from the constant wet, they were soaked by continuous rain. They were worn out by fighting in a country where movement alone for even unencumbered men was hardship. They were burdened by their own wounded; desertions by carriers aggravated that difficulty and the supply problem. Potts felt that he could not hold any position for long unless he was heavily reinforced and until the Japanese lines of communication and supply were so extended as seriously to embarrass them. He told Allen this and of his intention to withdraw to Templeton’s Crossing. He felt that he must soon establish a firm base from which he could hold and considered that a position half-way between Myola and Efogi, with the Kagi track junction held, was the most suitable.
Accordingly, at dawn on the 2nd, the move to Templeton’s Crossing began. By 8 a.m. the 2/16th was settling one hour’s march north of Templeton’s Crossing with the 2/14th forward of it. The 2/16th had been strengthened once more by the return of Goldsmith’s men who had been cut off the previous day. Rhoden led the survivors of the 2/14th through the 2/16th about 10 a.m. without having been in contact. About 11 a.m. their pursuers were seen moving towards a standing patrol consisting of Corporal Willis89 and six men who had been sent out by Sublet from the
left forward positions where he was holding. Willis reported back that his patrol had shot ten of the Japanese. Soon Sublet announced that his main positions were in contact and that the Japanese were moving round his left flank. Caro decided that they were coming in behind him and prepared to move out by leaving the track and following the ridges to the east. This he achieved as the day was dying although disaster nearly overtook him at the last moment. Evidently the Japanese saw the Australians moving. Quickly they plunged forward. Their officers stood with drawn swords directing and encouraging their men who screeched as they attacked. The Australians yelled insults and stood their ground. Sergeant Duncan and his platoon, assisted by Sergeant Morris who rushed his men down the track to join in, stopped the rushes as they came. The Australians lost 2 men killed and one wounded at this awkward time but thought that they saw some 30 Japanese fall.
The 2/16th struggled over the rough country as Rhoden waited between Templeton’s Crossing and Myola. They were nearly exhausted. Hunger worried them. They had to tear their way through thick bush. They drank the water which oozed from the moss-covered trees. About 4 p.m. on the 3rd they emerged into the 2/14th area whereupon that battalion fell back on their way to Myola. With them went Lieutenant Bisset, Warrant-Officer Tipton and 11 men, all of whom arrived in the wake of the 2/16th after having been missing since the 30th August when they were swept off the track with Colonel Key. Of the other members of Key’s90 party they brought little news because they said it had split into small groups soon after its initial misfortune.
Rhoden’s men rested at Myola on the morning of the 4th September while he himself reconnoitred the area. They had a hot meal. They washed and were given clean clothes to replace the stinking garments which had remained unchanged on most of them since they had first set out over the mountains. They exposed their puffed and leprous-looking feet to the sun. From some the socks had to be cut away. Corporal Clark,91 the unit chiropodist, pared off rotten tissue. But their break was short lived. Word came that the 2/16th was heavily committed and Rhoden moved to cover Caro’s attempts to extricate his unit.
The 2/16th had been engaged again almost before the 2/14th had left the area on the previous day—the 3rd. A wet and only mildly disturbed night followed. About 2 p.m. on the 4th Lieutenant Hicks92 who had been patrolling to the west reported that Japanese were rounding the left flank. Soon afterwards McGee’s company, in the forward position, was fighting hard. Sublet, in the absence of Caro and his second-in-command,
Major Hearman,93 who were back at Myola on reconnaissance, decided to withdraw to better positions. He seemed to be beset by about 300 determined men. As he withdrew, his two rear companies (Goldsmith’s and Langridge’s) were ambushed, but McGee, who had been waiting, helped them through. Their pursuers lunged again when the Australians had scarcely reached their new positions. Darkness broke the contact and Hearman, who had now returned, led the men towards Myola. They slipped and fell in the night. They struggled to get their wounded back. Each man held the clothing or the bayonet of the man in front so that he would not lose his way, but finally they had to stop and wait for the daylight to come. At first light on the 5th they went on to Myola where the 2/14th covered them. There they were refreshed as the other battalion had been, and ate their fill of the stores which were being destroyed and which littered the area as the work of demolition went on. Then, crawling, sliding and edging their difficult way through the rain, they took the road to Efogi where they began to arrive in the early afternoon of the 5th September. The 2/14th followed and the two battalions, too worn to travel farther, bivouacked with protective patrols out.
The abandonment of Myola must have sickened Potts. More than any other man he knew its importance. On the 2nd he had reported to Allen that his men were in good heart and he considered (“conservatively”, he said) that they had inflicted over 700 casualties. He stated that all stores at Templeton’s Crossing had either been removed or destroyed and that he had made provision for the removal to Efogi of the supplies at Myola. In reply he was told that the 21st Brigade Composite Company were available as reinforcements whenever he required them, the importance of holding Myola was urged on him, and his attention was directed to the desirability of assuming the offensive. It was ironic that that note should have been struck at a time when his force was exhausted and at a fraction of its original strength while, with his brigade fresh and intact, he had been ordered from the offensive at the beginning of his operations. At Myola he had hoped to retrieve the situation with the first two companies of the 2/ 27th Battalion, which had arrived at Kagi on the 4th. The weight of the latest assaults on the 2/16th, however, and the lack of promise which the Myola area offered for defence, complicated by the fact that the old track from Kagi offered the Japanese the opportunity to reach Efogi without going near Myola at all, forced him to abandon the plan. He was a gallant and ambitious soldier and, in leaving Myola, he was not only relinquishing his main supply point but was also disregarding the latest expressed wishes of his commander; and at a time when the supplies which had meant so much to him originally were now coming from the air with some regularity and a real beginning had been made with air support attacks which could have done much to help the ground forces resume the offensive for which they had been longing—if that resumption had been possible.
His only consolation was his confidence that, from the time his brigade had begun operations, they had inflicted perhaps 1,000 casualties on their enemies.
While the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions were withdrawing from Myola on the 5th they made contact with the most advanced forces of the 2/27th Battalion which Colonel Cooper had been moving into position. Cooper himself, with Captain Sims’94 “A” Company and Captain Lee’s95 “B” Company, had arrived at Kagi on the 4th and found Honner there with his battalion, then numbering 185. From that point, on orders from Potts, Cooper moved back to high ground just south of Efogi, linked there with the balance of his unit and had his whole battalion (approximately 28 officers and 560 other
ranks strong) in position on Mission Ridge by 2 p.m. on the 5th. He then took over the automatic weapons and other equipment of the 39th Battalion and Honner moved his men off for Port Moresby.
On the morning of the 6th Caro and Rhoden led their weary men through the fresh battalion and occupied a position in rear, Rhoden forward of Caro. (Here Rhoden was rejoined by Lieutenants Pearce and Gardner—the latter wounded—and some of their men. They had been missing since the fighting at Isurava on 29th August. Pearce reported that they had beaten off a number of attacks, had killed Japanese in doing so, and that he had sent Sergeant Irwin96 ahead with the main party while he had fought a rearguard action himself to enable the others to get clear; but there was no word of Irwin.)
At 7 a.m. on the 6th Cooper sent Lieutenant Bell97 with a patrol to the junction of the Kagi–Myola tracks. He was to replace a patrol from
part of the 53rd Battalion which had been left in the area originally for supply duties. Through an error the 53rd patrol was pulled out before Bell arrived. Bell’s patrol was ambushed, Bell was wounded, and, when he arrived back at the battalion about 3.30, he reported that one of his men had certainly been killed, one other was believed to have been killed, 3 others had been wounded and 8 were missing. He said that he had counted seven Japanese platoons moving down the Myola–Efogi track. Soon afterwards Cooper, on Potts’ orders, drew his men back a little to a position with less exposed flanks.
The column which Bell had seen moved on to occupy Efogi and from 9 p.m. on the 6th to 5 a.m. on the 7th a procession of lights moving down the track from Myola and Kagi indicated that a stream of Japanese was flowing to a concentration in front of the Australians Early in the morning of the 7th eight Marauder aircraft strafed and bombed the Japanese positions. But the Japanese probed and felt for the Australians as the morning went on, and subjected them to fire from what Potts’ men thought to be a long-range mortar or a field piece. The Australians patrolled but with largely negative results until a party of the 2/27th under Sergeant Johns98 reported at 5 p.m. that they had killed 6 Japanese and captured a light machine-gun and grenade discharger, without loss. The long-range fire opened again about 5.30 and killed 2 men and wounded 5.
The expected Japanese attacks came in the dead hours before dawn on the 8th and continued with the morning. The main strength was estimated to be five companies (in addition to an unknown patrol strength). Captain Sims’ company beat the attackers back with rifle fire and grenades but the Japanese drove in again and again. Each time fire tore the attacks apart. But the assaulting troops were very determined Six of Sims’ Brens were knocked out. The company had gone into action with 1,200 grenades and with each man carrying 100 rounds of ammunition. The men used this entire supply, the whole battalion reserve, and much of the reserve companies’ stocks. Finally the attackers withdrew.
While they had been charging the front with such determination the Japanese had been following their usual practice of working round the flanks. Soon after dawn they were assailing brigade headquarters and Langridge’s company of the 2/16th which was guarding the brigade’s rear and the supply dumps there. The brigade headquarters people and Langridge found themselves heavily engaged, the conflict developing almost into hand-to-hand fighting. Before his wireless failed soon after 10 a.m. Potts gave Caro instructions that he was to take command of the brigade if the headquarters were wiped out, and withdraw the force to Menari. Meanwhile he was to attack back along the track towards Potts’ headquarters (some 700 yards in his rear) assisted, if necessary, by the 2/14th whose flanks Cooper was instructed to cover.
Caro himself, however, was deeply involved. He had been under heavy
attack from the rear since 6.30 and his own headquarters had been in great danger. He had tried to relieve Potts by pushing Sergeant Morris and a platoon down the track but Morris had been squeezed out. With the position getting more serious every moment, the 2/14th was ordered to withdraw to the 2/16th area with a view to a combined sally down the track, and the 2/27th also closed back. By 2 p.m. Rhoden had made the necessary adjustments with Cooper and was back in Caro’s area. It was now planned that three companies would attack back towards brigade headquarters—Nye’s company from the 2/14th, Sublet’s and Goldsmith’s from the 2/16th. At 2.45 the attack went in with Nye on the right of the track, Sublet on the track itself with McGee moving behind him, and Goldsmith to the left of the track. On the right Nye struck the heaviest opposition, his enemies dug in in front of him and reinforcing strengths attacking from his flanks. Warrant-Officer Noble99 with 8 men, some of them wounded, finally stormed through to the brigade area. Behind him, however, the gallant and lively Nye lay dead with 16 of his men, among them the heroic Corporal McCallum. At the end of the two hours’ fighting Sergeant Matthews100 and the few survivors of the main part of the company, out of ammunition, retired. Eight of the few of the company who remained were wounded (and one of these died next day).
On the track itself Sublet’s company was suffering similarly to Nye’s and found that it could not progress against an enemy strongly entrenched and waiting. On the left two platoons drove through to Potts’ headquarters. When he informed Caro of this (the wireless was working intermittently) Caro replied: “Enemy being heavily reinforced. Can you assist battalions to get forward?” Potts replied that it was imperative for Caro to get through and that he would try to assist from his end. Captain Langridge then thrust back towards Caro’s battalion with Lieutenants Grayden101 and Lambert102 and their platoons (Grayden’s men had fought their way in in the previous attack). The Japanese, however, killed Langridge and Lambert, struck down a number of their men and held the rest under intense fire. Not only, therefore, was Potts still separated from his main force but he and the few men with him were in acute danger. At this critical time Major Challen, who had been at Menari on reconnaissance, arrived back with 30 men from the Composite Company whom he had found at Menari moving forward. With him also was Captain Lyon103 from divisional headquarters. As darkness was falling Potts was able to disengage and move back to Menari, having been told by men of the attacking force who had got through from Caro of the battalions’ plans
to make for that point by a circuitous route if the main attacks failed, as they had done.
Meanwhile Caro, Cooper and Rhoden had been planning how best to extricate their men. Finally they decided that they would try to move out by way of a narrow track, steep and closed in with dense bush, through the rough country to the east and swing back on to the main track at Menari, in the order 2/16th, 2/14th and 2/27th. Although still under fire Caro moved his men between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. in accordance with this plan and successfully broke contact. Progress was painfully slow in that terrible country. The men cut and slashed at the scrub. Their hearts seemed to be bursting as they struggled to help their wounded, hoisting, lowering, pulling and pushing the clumsy stretchers on which the worst cases had to be carried.
Behind the 2/16th followed the 2/14th with the 2/27th holding the Japanese to give the other battalions a chance to get clear. Captain Lee’s company of the 2/27th fended off attacks as the rest of the unit moved. About 5.30 he thrust the Japanese into temporary confusion with a short, sharp counter-attack, and before they recovered led his company in the wake of their fellows.
Potts was waiting anxiously at Menari on the morning of the 9th with no further word from his battalions. By 11.30 a.m., however, the 2/14th and 2/16th were arriving, already under fire from Japanese mortars and machine-guns and a quick-firing field piece. While Captain Russell104 and a small group of men who had come up with the Composite Company held north of Menari, and McGee’s company held at Menari itself, Caro settled his men in position south of the village and Rhoden moved through to Nauro over a track knee-deep in mud. (Rhoden was less Lieutenants McGavin,105 Clements and Greenwood106 and their men who, with parties from the other two battalions, had been left behind to carry the wounded while the main bodies pushed on to beat the Japanese to Menari.) Potts still had no word of Cooper so, reluctantly, having sent a small Angau party out to try to contact the missing battalion, he left Menari at 2.30 p.m. since the Japanese commanded it from the high track to Efogi. A little later in the day when Russell, in accordance with his instructions, began to to move back in short bounds, he was ambushed and forced off the track losing 2 men killed by a vicious cross-fire which swept their path.
On the morning of the 10th the advancing Japanese brushed against the forward position of Caro’s battalion which then broke contact cleanly and began to go back once more. By early afternoon they were in position with the 2/14th, which Challen was now commanding, on the Maguli Range between Nauro and Ioribaiwa. There the two battalions, their
combined strength now only 307 all ranks, were formed into one composite unit with Caro in command and Challen as second-in-command.
That day, Brigadier Porter took over command of the force from Brigadier Potts, who returned to Port Moresby to report. Porter’s orders were to take control of all troops from Uberi forward, to hold the Japanese, to stabilise the position and to gain what ground he could. In addition to the 21st Brigade he was to command also, as the most important additions to his force, the 3rd Battalion (less one company), the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion (less one company), and patrols of the 2/6th Independent Company which were to work from Ioribaiwa. He had been told that the 25th Brigade would soon arrive to spearhead the operations which were designed to stabilise the position in the Owen Stanleys.
Porter decided to withdraw his force to the main Ioribaiwa feature. In the light of the experiences of the 8th and 9th he was not confident of clearing the Japanese from the track if they got behind the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions and, besides, he was more impressed by the tactical advantages of the Ioribaiwa area than those of Nauro Ridge.
Early on the 11th the Japanese were attacking elements of the 2/14th as the 2/16th began to move back through the 3rd Battalion. These 2/14th men held temporarily the attack which fell upon them from three sides but in doing so Warrant-Officer Noble and several men were killed and a number were wounded. Sergeant Sargent,107 a brave and resourceful young leader, was cut off caring for a wounded man and with him two other men.
The Japanese followed up and fell into an ambush which the 2/16th had left and lost possibly ten of their number. This checked them and, by the afternoon, the Composite Battalion was in position on the ridge half an hour north of Ioribaiwa, sited along the track in great depth, McGee’s company forward. On the right and on the track in rear the 3rd Battalion was located, and patrols of the 2/6th Independent Company were working to the left.
McGee had placed an ambush party forward of his area where a creek crossed the track. Later in the afternoon this party, under Corporal Moloney,108 watched with interest while thirty to forty Japanese moved down the creek bed and began to rummage among the shelters which the Australians had left standing. While the Japanese were fighting over tins which they found, twenty to thirty of them, Moloney claimed, fell before the fire which the Australians then poured into them.
On the 12th the Composite Battalion’s positions were reorganised, the 3rd Battalion’s positions were adjusted, and orders were issued that Ioribaiwa was to be held until relief came. The Japanese were losing some of their aggressiveness, no doubt feeling the strain of the long-drawn-out fighting and handicapped by the extension of their own supply lines just as the Australians had been in the earlier days of the campaign. They
engaged the Australians with fire late on the 12th but a quiet night followed as tired troops on each side took stock of the position. On the 13th Japanese mortar fire, and shelling from what was thought to be a mountain gun, killed and wounded some Australians. The Japanese probed the area. Some of them blundered into booby traps which Sublet’s company, now forward, had set. Lieutenant Watts109 reported that his patrol which had gone forward to the river crossing had shot down five or seven of their enemies.
Night came with no further action. With the 14th the 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions deployed, the one moving forward along the track, the other (which had arrived in rear of the 21st Brigade the previous day) moving on the Australians’ right flank.
The arrival of these battalions of the 25th Brigade was one of the results of the concern which was being felt on the highest military plane about the results of the operations in the Owen Stanleys. That concern was sober and controlled on Rowell’s part. (He said later—and Allen was of like mind—“At no time did I consider that the capture of Moresby by the enemy from the north was possible.”) Rowell’s and Allen’s concern was based on a true appreciation of the difficulties which Potts’ men were facing but MacArthur’s concern was founded on lack of knowledge of the conditions of the campaign, and of the quality of the Australian troops who were involved. At this time MacArthur was very worried about the whole of the Pacific situation. On 30th August he had radioed the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Unless the strategic situation is constantly reviewed in the light of current enemy potentialities in the Pacific and unless moves are made to meet the changing conditions, a disastrous outcome is bound to result shortly; it is no longer a question here of preparing a projected offensive; without additional naval forces, either British or American, and unless steps are taken to match the heavy air and ground forces the enemy is assembling, I predict the development shortly of a situation similar to those that have successfully overwhelmed our forces in the Pacific since the beginning of the war.
With the issue of Milne Bay only then being decided and the operations in the Owen Stanleys assuming the nature of Allied reverses, MacArthur and his own headquarters were very fidgety. In a personal letter to Rowell on 1st September, General Vasey wrote: “GHQ is like a b–––y barometer in a cyclone—up and down every two minutes. ... They’re like the militia—they need to be blooded.”
On the 6th September MacArthur (completely disregarding the facts) told General Marshall in America: “The Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking.” Next day he conveyed similar sentiments to Vasey with a request that Vasey inform Rowell of the necessity to “energize combat action”. This Vasey did and, writing to Rowell personally, he referred also to a complaint by Rowell that the news being given out regarding the fighting in New Guinea did not satisfactorily represent the
position. He said that this was due to two reasons: firstly the time-lag between the actual events and the issue of communiques (which MacArthur wrote himself), secondly “General MacArthur’s own personal outlook and actions”. Of the latter he wrote:
My information ... comes from Howard110 our Press Relations LO [Liaison Officer] at GHQ. He says that MacArthur will not admit that any serious operations are going on in New Guinea and, as you probably know, all press articles must bear out the tone of the official communique. ... The reasons for this attitude of MacArthur I do not know—nor does Howard.
Against this rather uncertain background Rowell was trying to solve two different aspects of the one problem. He felt that he could not rely on the militia forces which formed the bulk of the strength available to him both for the defence of Port Moresby and for operations in the mountains; he was trying to get additional AIF forces allotted to him. Of his militia the 14th Brigade had not yet been committed. On the 29th August, after he had been told that the 25th Brigade was going to Milne Bay, he had signalled Blamey:
Allen has now had good chance to see 14 Infantry Brigade and is by no means impressed with their efficiency and general standard of training. This is no reflection on their courage but units contain a large number of young men not yet properly developed or trained. His view with which I concur is that 25 Infantry Brigade is required here if this place is to be regarded as reasonably secure from major seaborne attack. ... Your decision will naturally depend on the outcome of the operations now in progress at Milne Bay. But bearing in mind the difficulties of quick reinforcement I submit that it is advisable to spare no sacrifice to collect ships to bring these seasoned troops in now.
The decision stood, however, to send the 25th Brigade to Milne Bay. Rowell again emphasised his need for this AIF formation saying: “After the experience of the 53rd Battalion I can have NO repeat NO confidence that any AMF unit will stand.” Finally his representations, the pressure of circumstances, and the passing of the crisis at Milne Bay, bore fruit, and he was told on 3rd September that the destination of the 25th Brigade had been changed to Port Moresby. Shipping to transport them represented a serious problem, however. Rowell urged that their arrival be hastened, saying of Potts, on the 8th: “Emphasise that during past week he has been heavily outnumbered and has suffered considerable casualties including half 2/14th Battalion.”
By this time Blamey had become alarmed and had told Rowell that both the 16th and 17th Brigades, which had just arrived from Ceylon, were available if he required them.111 Rowell replied that he would like the 16th Brigade sent forward, but then found himself fighting to retain both the 14th and 30th Brigades since it was then proposed that the 16th Brigade should relieve one of them and should not be additional to his existing force.
A further proposal which was to be the forerunner of important events emerged at this time. Major-General Sutherland, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff, had visited New Guinea early in September and, as a result, it was decided that American fighting troops should be sent into Rowell’s area. These were to consist initially of one regiment, and MacArthur directed that they be used to find a new track across Papua over which they could pass and strike the Japanese in the rear.
While these high-level discussions were going on Rowell had to face problems arising on the spot. He had to check the Japanese advance but he felt that his main danger might come through the infiltration of Japanese parties which would work down into the Moresby area via the Brown, Goldie and Laloki Rivers—a threat which he thought would become very lively when his opponents reached Ioribaiwa since they would then have a feasible route down the Goldie River.
Inserted between Rowell and Potts was Allen’s headquarters. Allen himself had been in a most invidious position. He had been able to do little to influence actual operations in the mountains, and Rowell’s headquarters had been responsible for supply—the factor on which the operations so largely depended. Conscious of the responsibility he had been given for the defence of Port Moresby itself from seaward attack he had had an exasperatingly impotent time, with the Japanese on the move round the South-eastern extremity of the island at Milne Bay and advancing so aggressively overland. What he could do to assist Potts he had done loyally and energetically. Now Rowell freed him from the responsibility for the defence of Port Moresby so that he could give his undivided attention to the forward operations.
So, as September advanced, a rearranged stage was being set. The 3rd Battalion of the 14th Brigade had been ordered forward on the 5th under Lieutenant-Colonel Paul,112 a devoted and admired leader but not young enough to climb the mountains. After a few days, Cameron, twenty years younger than Paul, took command of the 3rd after his brief period with the 53rd. At the same time the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion which had arrived in Port Moresby on the 6th was sent to Toribaiwa. The 2/6th Independent Company was based on Laloki with orders to patrol deep up the Goldie River to Ioribaiwa and as far as Karema on the Brown River. A special force under Colonel Honner, about 500 strong, was formed of a company from each of the 36th, 49th and 55th Battalions, and elements of the 2/6th Independent Company, to advance by way of the Goldie River to cut the Japanese line between Nauro and Menari. An increase in his air strength and the lengthening lines of Japanese communication enabled Rowell to begin a series of effective air strikes against his adversaries from about 6th September onwards. By the 14th the 25th Brigade was concentrated in the Ioribaiwa–Uberi area, and that day Porter handed over command of operations in the forward areas to Brigadier Eather.113
At that time the Japanese were still in sufficient numerical strength to constitute a force to be gravely reckoned with. The main body of Major-General Horii’s South Seas Force, which had landed near Buna on 19th August was built round the two fresh battalions of the 144th Regiment—Major Horiye’s II Battalion and Lieut-Colonel Kuwada’s III Battalion. Horiye and Kuwada at once hurried forward to the front where they joined Lieut-Colonel Tsukamoto’s I Battalion on the 24th. The Japanese plan then was that Tsukamoto and Kuwada, strengthened with engineers, dismounted cavalry and mountain gunners, would attack along the axis represented by the Deniki–Isurava track and spur, Kuwada leading his battalion in an outflanking movement along the high ground west of Isurava, while Horiye’s battalion circled by way of the east side of Eora Creek along the Missima–Abuari track. Thus the attack began to develop on the 26th, Tsukamoto and Kuwada trying themselves first against the tired and depleted 39th Battalion and Horiye developing his threat to the ill-prepared 53rd Battalion on the Australian right flank. The fighting did not reach its peak, however, until after the arrival in the forward area of two battalions of Yazawa Force—Lieut-Colonel Koiwai’s II/41st and Major Kobayashi’s III/41st. These had landed at Buna on 21st August and pushed straight inland, Horii himself going with them to direct the battle from the front. At once upon their arrival he had Koiwai’s battalion committed and held Kobayashi’s battalion in reserve.
Horii thus had five battalions, strongly reinforced with engineers, artillery and service troops of various kinds. They had not yet run into the supply difficulties which were vexing their opponents, they had only a comparatively short and easy journey behind them, they held the initiative. Against these Potts was matching the worn-out militiamen of the 39th Battalion, whom he was trying to extricate even as the battle was developing, companies of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions as they arrived in sub-unit groups after a hard struggle across the mountains, and the 53rd Battalion on whom he already knew he could not depend. His AIF battalions had an average strength of about 550 before they set out and were without artillery support.
Scarcely had Horii got the Australians off balance at Isurava and started them moving back along the track looking for a point on which they could firmly base themselves and launch forward into a counter-move, than the Japanese strength was further increased. On the night 2nd–3rd September a convoy made an unhindered landfall at Basabua and disembarked at least 1,000 fresh troops, mainly Colonel Yazawa’s I Battalion. Major Miyamoto at once took this battalion forward to join the rest of the regiment. Horii was thus able then to use the equivalent of two brigade groups (up to strength in infantry, well balanced with engineers and service troops, and supported by two mountain guns). As he thrust forward he used these two groups alternately, Colonel Kusunose commanding one, Yazawa commanding the other. Battle casualties and sickness cut down his strength daily but, as late as 12th September, it probably numbered about 5,000 fighting men.