Chapter 7: Ioribaiwa: And a Command Crisis
THE 25th Brigade had done well to begin its deployment for action on 13th–14th September. It had not arrived at Port Moresby until the 9th, after eight days at sea. Next day, before dawn, the first company—one from Lieut-Colonel Buttrose’s1 2/33rd Battalion—was moving up the track. It was followed on the 11th by the rest of the battalion and Lieut-Colonel Dunbar2 with his 2/31st Battalion. On the 12th Lieut-Colonel Withy’s3 2/25th moved in the wake of the other two battalions. The whole brigade wore the new “jungle green” uniforms, the first Australian formation to be so equipped.
On his way to Ioribaiwa Brigadier Eather of the incoming brigade passed Brigadier Potts coming down, Potts having handed over to Brigadier Porter. Impatient for action, however, he did not stay to hear Potts’ story. He was an energetic leader, 41 years of age at this time, who had commanded militia battalions before the war, and had sailed with the 6th Division in command of the 2/1st Battalion. He had been marked early by General Allen, then commanding the 16th Brigade, as his most promising battalion commander and, after watching Eather’s showing in Libya, General Mackay had supported Allen’s judgment.
Eather was ordered to halt the enemy advance towards Port Moresby by offensive action as far forward as possible; to regain control of the route to Kokoda, through the Isurava–Deniki area, with a view to the recapture of Kokoda. He was warned that the Nauro, Menari and Efogi air-dropping areas were absolutely vital to him in order to maintain his supply and to permit of further advance beyond them. He was told that the 21st Brigade had been instructed to hold a defensive position north of Ioribaiwa and that Lieut-Colonel Honner, with Honner Force, would move from Laloki on or about the 12th, under command of New Guinea Force, in an effort to cut the Japanese lines of communication.
Eather himself reached Uberi on the 11th. He then telephoned Porter who had just moved his force back to Ioribaiwa. After discussion with Porter he decided to send the 2/33rd Battalion round the right flank of the 21st Brigade (where Lieut-Colonel Cameron was holding with part of his 3rd Battalion), to send the 2/25th Battalion forward along the main track from Porter’s rear and so through Ioribaiwa to Nauro, and the 2/31st round Porter’s left flank to swing in on Nauro from that direction.
When Buttrose bivouacked on the night of the 13th–14th, some 500 yards in rear of Porter, the 2/33rd Battalion suffered the 25th Brigade’s
first New Guinea casualty: a two-man Japanese patrol threw grenades into their lines in the darkness and killed an officer.4 Next morning the battalion left the track and began the flanking movement towards Nauro. By early afternoon they had reached Captain Boag’s5 position (the right flank company of the 3rd Battalion), on a ridge above Ponoon. They went into defence on the forward slope below Boag without having contacted the Japanese.
That day the composite 2/14th–2/16th held astride the main track, losing several men killed and wounded by Japanese gunfire. Night found them still there with the 2/25th in rear and Japanese creeping about their foremost localities.
On the left, however, more positive action boiled up during the day. The 2/31st swung off the track in the morning, through the 2/16th and on to a side track which ran Northwest from Iori-baiwa along a ridge. The top of the ridge had an average width of only some twenty yards, narrowing into five-yard bottlenecks in some places, so that only a cramped field of advance was open. With his leading company under fire there Dunbar essayed a flanking movement with two other companies but the steep sides of the ridge, and nests of well-placed snipers, curtailed this movement. Heavy rain set in, shot through with sporadic fire. In the late afternoon Dunbar recalled his companies to the crest of the ridge. The Japanese followed them in with a strong thrust which raked the ridge with fire, but the men settled in a tight perimeter for the night.
On the 15th at 2 p.m. a hostile patrol was wedging itself between the left flank of the 2/33rd and Boag’s company of the 3rd Battalion. Eather, then, having shifted one of Cameron’s companies (Captain Beckett’s6) to strengthen his centre, ordered Withy of the 2/25th to attack towards the high ground on the right with two companies while Buttrose of the 2/33rd drove to the left with one company, the whole effort being designed to pinch off the intruding force. But the ruggedness of the country defeated Buttrose’s movement while Withy’s companies, in hostile contact from
3.30, could not dislodge their enemies from the high ground and were losing men. At 5.30 Buttrose sent Captain Clowes’7 company against the Japanese positions but it could make little headway, lost one officer and two men killed and had five men wounded, and finally withdrew. Soon afterwards the intruders surprised one of Beckett’s platoons and forced it back. The end of the day, therefore, found Eather’s right flank penetrated.
Meanwhile the centre was under pressure from Japanese who had crept closely upon the 2/16th and dug in during the night. The most advanced elements gave a little ground early in the day. Then the tired remnants of the 21st Brigade were swept by destructive machine-gun, mortar and mountain gun fire which killed 7 and wounded 19 of the 2/14th, and killed 4 and wounded 10 of the 2/16th. Late in the day Private (“Pappy”) Ransom8 of the 2/14th reported in and stated that he and Private (Bill) Edwards9 had been left behind earlier; that Edwards had been killed and that he himself had watched the Japanese setting up weapon positions within 50 yards of his concealment. He had sniped four of them before leaving his position in the late afternoon. Acting on Ransom’s information Lieutenant Jefferson10 of the 2/25th then took a patrol out into the night and attacked the weapon posts with grenades and sub-machine-guns. He lost none of his own men but considered that he inflicted fifteen casualties on the Japanese.
While all this was happening Dunbar, on the left, was finding the going difficult. With first light he had patrols out. But intermittent mortar and machine-gun fire troubled him. This, with a skilful enemy who avoided the open and sniped from the cover of trees and bushes, together with the rugged nature of the country, slowed movement. A Japanese sortie in the late forenoon cost him some casualties. Lack of water was becoming serious. Despite their determination, active patrolling, and the effectiveness of their mortar fire the position of the Australians when night fell was uneasy.
That night Eather told General Allen by telephone:
I think his [the enemy’s] action today is the culmination and putting into effect of a plan based on information he has collected about Porter during the last two days. I consider I have just arrived in time. I think it is going to take me all my time to stabilise the position for the present. Porter agrees.
He also said that he had sent out 180 carriers with stretcher cases and had none left for forward support. He wanted a minimum of 200 sent forward at once and said that air supply was not feasible in his present position.
With the morning of the 16th the attackers strained harder at the Australian positions. Buttrose thrust through Boag’s positions with Captain
Archer’s11 “B” Company, and gave Clowes the task of ambushing the Japanese if they withdrew. Archer had some local success but lost two men wounded. At the same time Withy’s two companies, temporarily under Buttrose’s command, continued their pressure from the right; but the position was not noticeably eased.
In the centre the composite battalion, still holding forward, came under heavy fire at 8.30 a.m., and a determined attack half an hour later forced the defenders back some distance. These men were now very battle-worn, after continued bitter, defensive fighting for over three weeks under the most appalling conditions of hardship. The 2/14th Battalion diarist recorded:
The strain was beginning to tell on all members of the unit, and some of the lads in forward positions who had stood up to it well and had done a wonderful job right through, began to crack up. Enemy mortar, MG and field piece continued to do deadly work on our forward positions all morning and our casualties mounted.
A day or two before one of the officers had noted in his diary:
This evening in the twilight I buried two Headquarters Company chaps. A very sad business as they had been terribly knocked. A shell had caught them in their slit trench. One of the chaps lending a hand fainted for a moment or two at the graveside. No one said a word—we just helped him to his feet. I noticed tears in the eyes of quite a few of the troops.12
On the left the progress of the 2/31st Battalion was still slow in the face of determined opposition. The leading company, Captain Hyndman’s,13 which had sustained much of the pressure since the battalion had begun its move, beat off a small but spirited Japanese attack soon after 8 a.m., causing fourteen Japanese casualties, it claimed, for the loss of two men wounded.
Even the usually imperturbable Eather was taken aback by the situation which was erupting so quickly round him. At 8.15 a.m. on the 16th he signalled to Allen:
Enemy feeling whole front and flanks. Do not consider can hold him here. Request permission to withdraw to Imita Ridge if necessary. Porter concurs.
In a telephone conversation with Allen, which followed at 9.30 a.m., he said that he had no indication of the enemy strength but it was greater than he had anticipated; nor could he give any accurate indications either of his own or the Japanese casualties. He said that the Japanese were moving round his flanks and he did not think that he could hold them at Ioribaiwa but would do so if possible. He asked Allen whether he felt that if he could not hold at Ioribaiwa he might withdraw to Imita Ridge? Allen replied that he must keep on the offensive and must hold the enemy as long as possible. He impressed on Eather the importance of retaining Ioribaiwa but left to him the final decision whether he should withdraw or not.
Eather then decided to move back, reasoning that if he continued to hold the Ioribaiwa position he would soon have committed all his force to defensive tasks and would have lost any freedom of movement to adopt the offensive; that, as he was obliged to cover Port Moresby, he must keep his force intact; that his supply position was precarious, dependent upon native carriers who would be dispersed by any threat to his lines of communication; that a withdrawal to the line of Imita Ridge would give him time to establish patrols well forward with a view to advancing again as soon as he had established a firm base.
With Buttrose still holding on the right Withy began to relieve the composite battalion in the forward positions about 11 a.m. and the small group of men who represented the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions moved back. The 2/25th then remained firm while the other two battalions struck inwards on to the track in their rear. The 2/31st then dropped back. At 4.30 p.m. the last of the 2/25th left Ioribaiwa Ridge and passed through the 2/33rd which was thus left on the track as rearguard. As night came Captain Miller’s14 company of the 2/33rd formed a rearguard while the rest of the brigade struggled wearily over a slippery track through a night that was made more dark by heavy rain.
Late in the afternoon Allen told Eather that he must fight out the battle on the Imita Ridge. General Rowell, in turn, underlined those instructions in a message to Allen which read:
Confirm your orders to Eather. Stress the fact that however many troops the enemy has they must all have walked from Buna. We are now so far back that any further withdrawal is out of question and Eather must fight it out at all costs. I am playing for time until 16 Inf Bde arrives.
Next morning Miller’s men were still waiting in carefully-arranged ambush. They held their fire when the Japanese first appeared then poured volleys into an advancing group. As the platoons afterwards “leapfrogged”
back the pursuing Japanese were fairly caught by mortar fire. When the Australians finally broke contact they estimated that they had shot down fifty Japanese without loss to themselves.
By 11 a.m. on the 17th the main deployment on Imita Ridge had been completed. The 3rd Battalion was on the right of the track, the 2/25th in the centre, the 2/31st on the left. The 2/1st Pioneers were on the left rear and it was planned that the 2/33rd would fill the right rear position when their withdrawal was complete. The composite battalion, 272 strong of which the 2/14th provided only 10 officers and 77 men, was moving to cover Uberi.
Meanwhile the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council had become anxious about the situation in New Guinea and, on 9th September, the Minister for the Army, Mr Forde, had asked General Blamey to go to Port Moresby, confer with General Rowell and report to the War Council. Blamey arrived at Port Moresby on the 12th, had discussions with the commanders there, and returned to Australia on the 14th. On the 16th he made a broadcast expressing confidence in the outcome and on the 17th he reviewed the operations in Papua and New Guinea before the Advisory War Council.
In that review he said that the strength of the Allied forces in New Guinea was approximately 30,000, that of their opponents estimated at up to 10,000; that the Japanese had a greater number of troops in the forward area than the Australians, their force there considered to be two regiments of an approximate total strength of 6,000; that this Japanese preponderance in forward strength was a result of Allied supply difficulties. He outlined his reinforcement plans saying that, in addition to the 25th Brigade which had recently arrived, the 16th Brigade was on the water, one squadron of light tanks was soon to be sent to Port Moresby with another squadron scheduled to follow; three field regiments, a mountain battery and one horse pack-transport unit were also being sent. In addition “a regiment of U.S. troops (approximately 3,500) was being sent to Port Moresby in accordance with the desire of the Commander-in-Chief SWPA that American troops should obtain experience in operations and in the development of supply arrangements in this area”. He concluded by saying “Lieut-General Rowell, Major-General Allen and the troops are confident that the Japanese will not be able to take Port Moresby from the land”, and that he shared their confidence.
It must have been a shock to Mr Curtin, therefore, when on the evening of the same day General MacArthur spoke with him by secraphone from Brisbane and told him that he was worried by the situation in New Guinea. MacArthur said that he considered that the real reason for the unsatisfactory position there was the lack of efficiency of the Australian troops; that he was convinced that the Australians were in superior numbers to the Japanese in the Owen Stanleys, but despite that, were, as at the beginning of the campaign, still withdrawing; that the Japanese, for their part, must be having similar difficulties to the
Australians but they were not withdrawing. MacArthur felt that, if the Japanese penetration continued, the Allies in New Guinea would be forced into such a defensive concentration as would duplicate the conditions of Malaya. The invaders, he said, had not pushed across the mountains with a serious force and the fact that a small force could press such a situation on the defenders was causing him serious unease.
The American was at pains to point out that his view of the matter was not the view of the Australian military leaders. They were confident of their ability to meet the situation. But so far was he from sharing that confidence that he proposed to send American troops to the area by air or sea in order to do everything possible to stem the attack. Within a week he expected to have 40,000 men in New Guinea and, if they fought, they should have no trouble in meeting the situation. If they would not fight, he said, 100,000 there would be no good. He had been told that he could expect very substantial air reinforcements in the future but the commitments of the British and American fleets had left him without adequate naval support. He was affected by the American position in the Solomons which he thought was not favourable. On the whole, he considered, his problem was reduced to one of fending off the Japanese for some months, and the fight to this end must be made in New Guinea.
MacArthur’s most immediate point was that General Blamey should go at once to New Guinea, personally take command there and “energize the situation”. Not only did he consider this a military necessity but, for Blamey, he thought it was a personal necessity since, if the situation became really serious, it would be difficult for the Australian leader to meet his responsibility to the Australian public. MacArthur said he would speak to Blamey in these terms, although he had no authority actually to direct him. He asked if the Prime Minister would follow by speaking to the Australian general himself.
Mr Curtin said that he would tell General Blamey that he considered he should go to New Guinea and take command there. This he did by secraphone that day. Blamey agreed.15
The Australian commander was thus faced with a situation in which, pressed as he was both by the Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area and the Prime Minister, no compromise was possible. He was solely responsible for the military leadership and organisation of all the Australian forces in the South-West Pacific, the bulk of which were not in New Guinea and were not yet fully efficient; and for all military aspects of the defence of the great land mass of Australia. It was a tribute to his self-control and sagacity that he had thus far refrained
from intervening personally in the control of forward operations; and to his ability to delegate responsibility and refrain from interference. As a soldier it would no doubt have been a relief to him to transfer temporarily to a field command.
In his address to the Advisory War Council there had been no hint of lack of confidence in his subordinate generals, no suggestion that he wished to take the conduct of operations out of their hands. Nor did Blamey hasten to comply with the Prime Minister’s instruction. It was not until 20th September that he informed Rowell of it and not until the 23rd that he arrived in Port Moresby. In his letter to Rowell on the 20th he was frank in his criticism of the “politicians”, and at the same time showed that he was aware of the practical and personal difficulties of the somewhat amateurish arrangement that had been forced upon him.
The powers that be (he wrote) have determined that I shall myself go to New Guinea for a while and operate from there. I do not, however, propose to transfer many of Adv HQ Staff and will arrive by aeroplane Wednesday evening, I hope with Hopkins.16 At present I propose to bring with me only my PA, Major Carlyon,17 two extra cipher officers and Lieut Lawson.18 I hope you will be able to house us in your camp and messes.
I hope you will not be upset at this decision, and will not think that it implies any lack of confidence in yourself. I think it arises out of the fact that we have very inexperienced politicians who are inclined to panic on every possible occasion, and I think the relationship between us personally is such that we can make the arrangement work without any difficulty.
When, however, the Commander-in-Chief arrived at Port Moresby at 5 p.m. on 23rd September Rowell met him, quickly made it clear that he did not welcome him, and it soon became painfully evident that “the arrangement” would not work as Blamey had hoped. Rowell recorded later:
On 21 Sep 42 I received a semi-official letter from the C-in-C advising that he was proceeding to MORESBY on 23 Sep 42 to operate from there.
I met the C-in-C at the aerodrome at 1700 hrs on 23 Sep 42. During the evening of that day, and once on each of the two days following, we had a full and frank discussion of the position of the GOC NEW GUINEA Force in view of the C-in-C’s arrival. At times the discussion was acrimonious as I then believed, and still do believe, that the C-in-C’s confidence in me, expressed in broadcast of 16 Sep 42, no longer existed.
The main theme of these discussions, apart from the question of loss of confidence, was an endeavour to find a working arrangement suited to the circumstances. The fact that General Blamey had no staff with him made it inevitable that my own staff would, sooner or later, be called on to serve two masters and that I would gradually become a figure-head.
The C-in-C suggested that I should become a deputy to him but I demurred at this as it would have merely made me a staff officer with all vestige of command authority removed.
I submitted a proposal, which was not acceptable to the C-in-C, that the size of the force either in NEW GUINEA or under orders to move warranted the establishment of an Army Headquarters under which myself and my staff would have been responsible for the defence of MORESBY and for operations in the OWEN STANLEY Range. The superior Headquarters would then have had general responsibility for the whole area, as well as the detailed control of MILNE BAY and Commando unit8 at WAU.
Later (1st October) Blamey wrote to Curtin:
I would like to say that the personal animus displayed towards me was most unexpected. ...
In regard to his [Rowell’s] ... claim that I had failed to safeguard his interests in accepting the direction of yourself and the C-in-C, SWPA, I informed him perfectly frankly of the exact incidence of events which led me to come to New Guinea, and there appears to be no ground for any resentment or objections on his part. It seemed to me when I received your directions and those of the C-in-C, SWPA, that it behoved me to carry out those instructions, and there can be no doubt that when the consequent instructions were given to General Rowell, it was his duty also to carry them out without question, cheerfully and cooperatively. I endeavoured to induce him to see this point of view, but his resentment was too deep.
I informed him that I did not propose to make any alteration in the method of command, and I would do nothing that would derogate from his authority. He asserted his intention of refusing to accept the situation and remain in New Guinea. I pointed out that such an attitude would be unacceptable to any Government and that it would certainly mean his retirement from the Forces. ... This was the substance of my interview with him on the day of my arrival on the 23rd September.
A very strained situation continued between the two men on 24th September. On the evening of that day Blamey asked Major-General Burston19 (the head of the army’s medical services, and an old friend of Rowell’s) to speak to Rowell and try to make him see the situation as Blamey saw it. This, however, apparently did nothing to ease the tension. On the 25th Blamey went to Milne Bay and, apparently, without reference to Rowell, gave orders to Major-General Clowes for the dispatch of a force to Wanigela:
On the second day after my arrival I visited Milne Bay accompanied by Brigadier-General Walker, US Forces, temporarily commanding the air forces in New Guinea. From our discussions there it appeared that we might develop close cooperation between the air and land forces and overcome the difficulties of movement to some extent by the transport of land forces and supplies by air. This necessitated the finding of landing grounds. An examination of the landing ground at Wanigela Mission, approximately 100 miles Northeast of Milne Bay, made it appear possible that the first step might be made in this way, and it was ultimately decided to fly the 2/10th Battalion, AIF, to Wanigela from Milne Bay.20
Next day Rowell addressed this minute to Blamey:
1. By the terms of para 3 of LHQ Operation Instruction No. 30 dated 9 Aug 42,
GOC 1 Aust Corps, which appointment I was holding at the time, was designated Commander “New Guinea Force”.
2. Para 4 of the same instruction authorised me to exercise operational control over all military forces constituting New Guinea Force at that time and such other troops as may have been subsequently assigned thereto.
3. Your arrival at Moresby to operate as Commander-in-Chief from here will inevitably vary my authority and it is submitted that the position needs to be defined so that all concerned will know what variation is contemplated. This applies particularly to Allied formation commanders now exercising command under my orders as well as the joint service aspect of Navy, Army and Air cooperation. In this connection I instance your verbal orders to Commander Milne Force at Milne Bay on 25 Sep 42 regarding the despatch of a detachment to Wanigela.
4. The question of the exercise of powers of the Authorised Person under National Security (Emergency Control) Regulations will also need to be determined. By the terms of para 18 of LHQ Operation Instruction No. 30, the powers of the Authorised Person are vested in me. The wording of the regulation is as follows:
‘The Senior Officer of the Military Forces for the time being present and having the operational command of the Military Forces serving in that part.’
It would now appear that this authority should pass to you and that fresh delegations be made to replace those already issued to me.
Blamey did not reply directly but, later in the day, issued the following directive to Rowell:
I have been directed by the Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief, South-West Pacific Area, to take control of the forces in the New Guinea area.
For the present it does not appear necessary or desirable to set up an additional headquarters staff. Therefore I propose to exercise command through yourself and the present staff.
I will be glad if you will direct that arrangements are made to furnish me promptly with all tactical and other information and alterations in the functions, allocations, dispositions and location of troops.
I will be glad if you will ensure that all messages and information for Headquarters Allied Land Forces or Headquarters Australian Military Forces are submitted to me, including Situation Reports, before dispatch.
In the event of my absence from Headquarters, where it is apparent that such absence would cause undue delay in furnishing such information, you will forward it direct, at the same time taking such action as is necessary to ensure that I am kept fully informed.
The above applies also to matters of Administration of any importance. ...
Rowell then set the necessary processes in train to these ends. On the 27th he and Blamey discussed and decided upon certain arrangements which they would follow. It seemed that a modus vivendi had been arrived at, but later that day Blamey decided that New Guinea Force was not making adequate efforts to provide him promptly with information, though he did not tell Rowell this. At 9 a.m. on 28th September, he told Rowell that he had decided to relieve him of his command and that he had telegraphed an “adverse report” on him to both the Prime Minister and General MacArthur. He did in fact send two reports to both that day in the second of which he asked that Lieut-General Herring be sent to Port Moresby as Rowell’s successor. In justification of his decision he
referred in a letter to Curtin21 to what he called Rowell’s “non-cooperative attitude” and said:
With reference to the statement in my message that I was not satisfied that necessary energy, foresight and drive had been shown, the following items are cited –
(i) The capacity to drive the Japanese from New Guinea depends on our capacity to place sufficient forces in suitable tactical positions to do so.
The present line of advance via Kokoda is so difficult that it will be months before a force of 2,000 men could be supplied by this route. There is no hope of achieving victory along this route alone.
I had urged on my previous visit, a fortnight earlier, that the route north from Abau should be examined energetically. No action was taken by General Rowell to do so. It was left to GHQ SWPA to direct their Chief Engineer, General Casey, to make such an investigation.
I took immediate action to energize this effort.
(ii) A second instance is the lack of effort to take advantage of our success at Milne Bay.
Details of an operation about to take place for this are contained in another communication.
General Rowell’s attitude to this operation was expressed in his own words in the presence of myself and another officer—If we take it on it will only lead to the Japs sending more in.’ He said, however, he was prepared to direct General Clowes to carry out the operation.
It was clearly a case that demanded vigorous action by the Commander of the Force. I took such action and went to Milne Bay with the American Air Force Commander, and, in consultation with General Clowes, outline of the operation was decided.
General Rowell, however, held that I had taken the command out of his hands.
Blamey’s letter continued:
On the other side, I would like to say that the effort that has been put into this locality has produced most striking results and that General Rowell has cooperated in the development of this area with the Air Force splendidly.
Apart from his insubordinate attitude, my principal criticism is a lack of appreciation of the need for seeking out energetically the possibilities of developing aggressive action. This, I think, is due mainly to limited experience of command.
Rowell had left New Guinea before this letter was written and he was given no opportunity of replying to the charges it contained. It is most difficult now to determine how well-founded they might have been. Despite Blamey’s assertion that it would “be months before a force of 2,000 men could be supplied by this [the Kokoda] route”, nevertheless the 16th and 25th Brigades (numbering substantially more than 2,000) were fighting and being maintained along this route during October-November. As for “the route north from Abau”—an attempted advance by Americans over this route later was only partially successful and had no practical result. Furthermore, Rowell was later to deny that Blamey had directed him to examine this route, writing:
When Blamey made his first trip, MacNider [commanding the first troops of the 126th U.S. Regiment to arrive in Port Moresby] was already in Moresby. I had talked with MacNider and expressed my views as to sideshows. I said that, as he was acting on GHQ orders, I couldn’t veto his proposals, but I made it clear
that there would be no diversion of facilities from the main task. I discussed this with Blamey when he came in and he was in complete agreement.
In respect of the Wanigela move Rowell was later to write:
In my period of command the role of Milne Force was never changed. This Wanigela concept was all of a pattern with the American idea of outflanking the mountains. ... Blamey certainly did raise it with me and I probably answered as I did. The test of the Wanigela move is an assessment of what it actually achieved in the overall plan.
In reporting the situation to the Advisory War Council on 1st October Mr Curtin said
He did not believe ... that Lieut-General Rowell had been transferred because of any lack of confidence by General Blamey in General Rowell’s decisions on operational matters.
In a later report to the Council on 15th October
the Prime Minister referred to his interview with Lieut-General Rowell on 3rd October, and said that he had formed the impression that the difficulties had arisen out of a clash of personalities and temperaments.
This episode, set in motion by MacArthur’s ill-advised proposal and ill-informed criticisms of 17th September, was an unhappy one for the army in general, for the Australian Commander-in-Chief, and for General Rowell. The Commander-in-Chief had fostered Rowell’s great promise and now, a strong man, found a seriously estranged subordinate unexpectedly and starkly opposing him at a critical time. Rowell, high-principled and proud, having allowed personal feelings temporarily to cloud his judgment, was called upon to hand over his command just as his cool and patient planning seemed about to bear fruit. Had Blamey been patient a little longer, had Rowell been less open and direct, the moment would have passed.22
General Rowell left New Guinea on the 28th. On the same day General Blamey issued an Order of the Day stating that he had assumed command of the forces in New Guinea on the 24th. What was the general position in New Guinea when General Blamey thus assumed command in his own person?
After issuing instructions on 9th September which had freed the 7th Division to concentrate on operations north of Port Moresby, General Rowell had, on the 14th, precisely defined the forward area for which the division was responsible. This was the region of the Kokoda Track north and Northeast of the Laloki River which ran roughly parallel with the coast and some ten miles north of it, east of an imaginary line through Hombrom Bluff which lay about half-way between Port Moresby and Owers’ Corner. The main units allotted to the division were those of the 21st and 25th Brigades, the 3rd and 55th Battalions, 2/1st Pioneers, 2/6th
Field Company, 2/14th Army Field Company, and 2/4th and 2/6th Field Ambulances.
On the same day the 30th Brigade had been ordered to stop any penetration which might develop by land into the Port Moresby base area through the country from Hombrom Bluff west to the Brown River, which flowed roughly south from the mountains to join the Laloki some nine miles NorthNorthwest of Port Moresby. Within that area the Goldie River ran South-west to the Laloki from the vicinity of the Kokoda Track. Additionally the brigade had been given a defence role against landings in the Port Moresby area. To carry out all these tasks it had the 39th, 49th and 53rd Battalions (with the 53rd, however, allotted the work of unloading ships), Honner Force, and the 2/6th Independent Company less detachments.
The rest of the field force had been organised into three groups: the 14th Brigade in a coast-defence role at Port Moresby, with only the 36th Battalion under command at the time; an artillery group—including the 13th and 14th Field Regiments—given defensive tasks against attack from both the land and the sea; the New Guinea Force Composite Carrier Group, made up of the bulk of the carrier and mortar platoons of the 21st and 25th Brigades, as a reserve designed to act as a mobile striking force.
A minor aspect of the planning on the formation level during this mid-September period, was that which involved the operation of two separate small forces wide on the east and west of the Kokoda Track. On the east General Allen had established a detachment of company strength made up from the rear details of the 21st Brigade and commanded by Major Robinson23 of the 2/16th Battalion, with orders to prevent any Japanese advance south from Nauro by native tracks which led through many miles of broken country to Jawarere. This constituted Jawforce. On the west was Honner Force. It constituted an interesting experiment, and represented recognition of the fact that, in the form of warfare which had developed in the mountains, an enemy could and should be struck along his vital supply and communication lines. Unfortunately plans to maintain Honner by means of horse transport and air drops could not be realised for lack of enough horses and lack of suitable dropping grounds. Honner was told, therefore, that he was not to go beyond the limits of the rations which he carried and, about the 17th, he was approaching that limit without having encountered Japanese.
This same period saw the first arrival of American infantry in New Guinea in accordance with General MacArthur’s directions that, initially, one regiment should be used to find an alternative track across Papua by which they could strike the Japanese on the Kokoda Track in the rear. The plan was, in fact, an extension of that which Rowell had attempted to put into operation with Honner Force.
On 12th September a small advanced party, under Brigadier-General Hanford MacNider, arrived in Port Moresby to make preliminary
arrangements for the American operations. After consulting with Rowell, MacNider decided on the route which the Americans would follow. They would go by way of Rigo, a coastal village 40 or 50 miles South-east of Port Moresby, up the valley of the Kemp Welsh River which flowed almost due south from the mountains, thence to Dorobisolo on the southern slopes of the main Owen Stanley Range. They would strike then Northeast across the range itself to Jaure on the headwaters of the Kumusi River. From Jaure they would probably follow the line of the Kumusi, flowing Northwest, to Wairopi on the Buna side of Kokoda. Over this proposed route a small reconnaissance patrol started on the 17th, guided by Lieutenant Sydney Smith24 of Angau.
The previous day an advanced detachment of the 126th Infantry Regiment, from the 32nd U.S. Division, had arrived at Moresby. It consisted of one company of the II Battalion and a company of the 114th Engineers. By the 25th this detachment had built a motor road to Rigo and had begun the establishment of a base. The main body of the 126th arrived at Moresby on the 28th.
But these were not the only American infantry being sent to New Guinea at this time although the original plans for the drive to the Kokoda Track from the South-east had envisaged the use of only one regiment. On the 18th September two companies of the 128th Regiment arrived at Moresby by air and the rest of the regiment followed in the next few days. The decision to send in this formation and its accelerated movement once that decision had been made, were obviously the results of the unease which MacArthur had expressed to Curtin on the 17th.
On the 20th September Rowell had assessed the position, as he saw it, in a letter to headquarters in Australia.
1. The main reasons for the success of the Japanese in forcing the Owen Stanley Range and advancing on Moresby are as follows: –
(a) Superior enemy strength at the decisive time and place.
(b) More simple administrative needs of the Japanese soldier and his better clothing and equipment particularly in respect of camouflage.
(c) Lack of reinforcing troops to restore a situation where the enemy was gaining superiority e.g. at Isurava and Efogi.
(d) Higher standard of training of enemy in jungle warfare. Our men have been bewildered and are still dominated by their environment.
2. A stage has now been reached where there is every prospect, owing to the enemy administrative difficulties and to the very considerable reinforcements arriving for us here, that any further deep penetration, other than by small patrols, can be stopped. The problem now to be solved is what is to be the future role of New Guinea Force in the Moresby area.
3. The primary task, as I see it, is the retention of Moresby as an Air Operational Base. This now demands adequate protection against seaborne attack as well as defence against further enemy inroads, either by the direct route into Moresby or by side-tracks and trails such as those down the Goldie and Brown Rivers.
4. Until recently, the only form of defence considered here was that against sea-borne attack, but the needs of the situation to the north have forced me to draw away more and more troops until today there is only one battalion [53rd] of
indifferent fighting quality available for direct defence, and that is employed entirely on unloading ships. There are, in addition, certain beach defence guns and MMGs in more or less permanent locations. This stage of affairs should not be permitted to persist and I consider that a garrison of not less than one division with a complement of tanks should be located here for this role alone.
5. The defence of Moresby from the north can be best achieved by operations which will force the enemy further and further back. The projected move of 126 US Infantry Regt may conceivably help to achieve this, but it will take some little time to stage and its effect will not be felt immediately. It may, of course, merely have the effect of forcing the enemy to reinforce the Buna area to meet the threat, a move for which he presumably has adequate troops at Rabaul. It is not proposed to allow 126 US Regt to commence its move from Moresby until the local situation is stabilised. Present plans are based on its moving via Rigo, but I consider that base should be moved to Abau, subject to satisfactory results of recce [reconnaissance] by the Engineer in Chief at GHQ.
6. Operations astride the Myola–Kokoda track will be costly, both in combat troops and administrative effort. I consider the best results are likely to be obtained by applying steady pressure on the main track as far to the north as possible, and relying on exploitation by side-tracks to cut into the enemy L of C and so force him to withdraw. Possibilities in this regard are, up the Goldie River into Ioribaiwa, and from Itiki through Jawarere to Nauro.
7. The limiting factor in these proposals is always administrative. Lack of pack transport and continual decrease in availability of native porters will restrict the size of flanking forces which can be employed. Improvement of tracks and arrival of pack transport companies will, however, increase the probable scope of such moves.
8. Defensive requirements to the north, together with provision of adequate troops for offensive operations, will call for a division. This does not need to be organised on standard lines—in fact, such an organisation is wasteful here. For example artillery is not necessary, but infantry units should have a very much larger number of personnel in rifle companies.
9. In this regard there are two important factors to be stressed:
(a) Wastage of manpower in jungle and mountain warfare.
(b) Training in this type of warfare.
The wastage of personnel from battle casualties and physical exhaustion is extremely high. This demands greater infantry W/Es [War Establishments] as well as reserves of fresh units to replace those temporarily depleted in numbers or otherwise battle weary.
Training as known in Queensland bears no relation to jungle conditions. The Port Moresby area itself is just as bad a training ground. It is essential that troops get into actual jungle and learn to master its difficulties of tactics, movement and control.
10. These two factors, taken together, postulate the need for a second division of the special type that can be always available for active operations, and the other for re-fitting and training. There would accordingly always be the equivalent of a division available here, specially organised and trained for operations outside the Moresby area, if and when the occasion arises.
11. The question of personnel replacement requires urgent attention. All except one of the AIF Bdes, are now in, or en route to New Guinea, and they all need reinforcements to a greater or lesser degree. If personnel are not available these formations will merely waste away, and there are not unlimited troops (US) to take their place.
Rowell’s statement in the fourth paragraph of that letter—“the needs of the situation to the north have forced me to draw away more and more
troops until today there is only one battalion of indifferent fighting quality available for direct defence [against sea-borne attack]”—was well illustrated by the command groupings which existed on 23rd September (the day of General Blamey’s arrival). By that time Rowell had in operation a two-diyisional organisation, following the opening in Port Moresby on the 19th of the headquarters of the 6th Division, under General Vasey.25 The 6th Division itself had never existed as such since its departure from the Middle East, because of the retention of two of its brigades in Ceylon and the posting of the third brigade to the Northern Territory. Now, although its headquarters had been re-established, its 16th Brigade had disembarked at Port Moresby only on the 21st, the 17th was bound for Milne Bay, and the 19th was still in the Darwin area.
Within the 7th Division were the 25th Brigade Group (including, in addition to its normal battalions, the 3rd and 2/1st Pioneer), the 14th Brigade (36th, 39th and 55th Battalions), and the 16th and 21st Brigades. The role of the 25th Brigade was unchanged, the 14th Brigade had the task of keeping secure the lines of communication between Ilolo and Uberi, the 16th Brigade was to cover the approaches to Port Moresby through the Eilogo–Hombrom Bluff area, and the 21st Brigade was scheduled for relief.
The 6th Division for the moment comprised the 30th Brigade (49th and 53rd Battalions and Honner Force), the 2/6th Independent Company less detachments, the 128th American Infantry Regiment, the New Guinea Force Carrier Group, the 13th Field Regiment, 2/6th Field Regiment and one battery of the 14th and some anti-tank artillery. On their relief the 21st Brigade and the 39th Battalion were to come under command, as also on arrival were the 7th Divisional Cavalry and 2/1st and 2/5th Field Regiments which were moving to Port Moresby. General Vasey had been ordered to stop penetration into the Port Moresby base area through the country west of Hombrom Bluff, to patrol offensively to the Japanese west flank and to defend Port Moresby against seaborne attack.
But all this organisation and preparation was secondary in importance to the operations at the front. When it had been determined on the 17th that Blamey would go to New Guinea Eather had been seeking a firm base at Imita Ridge. There his men, lacking shovels, dug in with bayonets and steel helmets, screened by the offensive patrolling which he had put into operation. The patrols were about 50 strong, all ranks. They carried five days’ rations, a Bren gun and at least seven sub-machine-guns, and were ordered to harass their enemies, particularly along the lines of communication. As they began to operate Eather was getting the breathing space he needed for the Japanese had not followed his withdrawal. Nor had his losses been heavy: 8 had been killed, 84 wounded in exchange, he estimated, for some 200 Japanese killed.
One of the first of the strong patrols to go out on the 18th was led
by Captain Dodd26 of the 2/25th Battalion. Between Imita Ridge and Ioribaiwa Dodd located a Japanese post in the course of preparation. Before dawn on the 19th he rushed this with grenades, sub-machine-guns and bayonets. On the morning of the 19th he continued skirmishing and then, still forward, rested in ambush waiting for night to come again. Apart from this small action the day was uneventful except that the 2/33rd Battalion entered the main positions. Eather’s force was then concentrated and firm, its main strength (excluding the headquarters of the 21st Brigade and the composite 2/14th-2/16th Battalion which, by this time, were back at Uberi) numbering 132 officers and 2,492 men made up as follows:
|HQ 25th Brigade.||8 and 70|
|2/25th Battalion||27 and 520|
|2/31st Battalion||26 and 502|
|2/33rd Battalion||28 and 490|
|2/1st Pioneer Battalion .||20 and 540|
|3rd Battalion .||22 and 347|
|2/6 Independent Company Patrol .||1 and 23|
The 20th passed quietly. Dodd reported from his forward position that, with the dawn, he had discovered a slight Japanese recession but much activity in the vicinity of the track. He waited until the day was late but the Japanese showed no signs of advancing. He then started back while a similar patrol from the 3rd Battalion under Captain Atkinson27 and Lieutenant Dullard28 moved forward. Other patrols had little to report. Farther back Porter was ordered to return his headquarters to the base area on the 21st while the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions resumed their separate identities at Uberi and readjusted their positions.
The next three days were marked by Japanese passivity under bombardment from guns of the 14th Field Regiment, sited at Owers’ Corner, in the face of questing Australian patrols, and on the 22nd, by a cautious movement forward along the track by the 2/25th Battalion. Withy met no opposition although, ahead of him and west of Ioribaiwa, Atkinson’s patrol lost Dullard and three men killed.
By the evening of the 23rd, therefore—the day of General Blamey’s arrival—Eather had already begun to edge forward again against a supine enemy whose numbers west of Ioribaiwa his patrols had estimated at about 600.
entrenched Japanese and then Captain O’Bryen’s31 “B” Company took over. O’Bryen pushed hard on the 25th, gained a little ground and captured some equipment and Withy began recasting his position to assist O’Bryen and maintain the pressure. Eather planned now to hold with Withy in the centre and move Buttrose’s and Dunbar’s battalions round the right and left flanks respectively. He began this manoeuvre on the 26th with Withy still in contact, By nightfall on the 27th, with the Japanese positions under artillery bombardment, Buttrose and Dunbar were closing in on Ioribaiwa from the flanks while Withy’s men, who had pressed slowly forward, had penetrated barriers and defence works which blocked the track and were in fleeting touch. Eather proposed to launch his men at the Ioribaiwa positions next day.
On the 28th the attack went forward as planned but there was no opposition. The Japanese had abandoned their positions and much equipment. By the end of the day the three battalions were in occupation of the Ioribaiwa area. There the 3rd Battalion joined them on the 29th. By that time offensive patrols were already pushing forward towards Nauro where one of them, under Captain Andrew32 of the 2/25th, arrived on the 30th to find that it too had been abandoned.
It seemed now that all the factors which had operated so adversely against the Australians at the beginning of the mountains campaign were now operating, even more effectively, against their enemies. But none of those who had fought the Japanese doubted that much desperate fighting still lay ahead even though the immediate overland threat to Port Moresby seemed to have been removed. During the process of removing that threat, however, a rather bitter judgment had been brought to bear on some of the leaders and men of the Australian Army. How far did a clearer perspective now enable those judgments to be sustained?
To Mr Curtin on the 17th September General MacArthur had said the Australian commanders had the utmost confidence in their ability to deal with the situation but that he did not share that confidence. The stage which had been reached by the end of September, however, vindicated the Australians. But there were many who accepted General Blamey’s presence in New Guinea from the 23rd onwards as the obvious reason for this improvement. Clearly this could not have been the reason. Eather’s withdrawal to Imita Ridge had been the immediate cause for the Commander-in-Chief’s presence in New Guinea. But, before he arrived, Eather was already on the move forward once more. There was no new circumstance associated with Blamey’s arrival which affected the events of the next few days in the slightest. Those stemmed from three main sets of conditions: the exhaustion of Japanese men and means as a result of the Australian resistance, particularly by Potts’ brigade, and as a result of the difficulties of the Kokoda Track; the presence and skill of Eather and his men at a critical time; General Rowell’s planning.
Potts was transferred to another command. But Eather’s first tactical move after he had been committed was to continue the process of withdrawal which had been forced on Potts—and he had then a completely fresh brigade, at the beginning only of the notorious Kokoda Track and therefore not drained of strength by a long and rigorous approach to battle, while, in addition, he had the remnants of the 21st Brigade, the 3rd Battalion, the 2/1st Pioneers. He had been able to accept battle as a formation. Potts, on the other hand, had had only four battalions initially, one of which (the 53rd) was soon sent out of battle. His men had walked over the mountains to be committed company by company on arrival. He had met the Japanese in the full impetus of their advance when they were fresh, vigorous and well found, and when there was no strength to fight forward from behind him Although Eather had to rely on pack transport and native carriers, his supply line was a short one. Potts was at the uncertain end of a long and most uncertain line, bogged in the soft sands of other peoples’ logistical errors. Eather withdrew in order to establish a firm base and sent forth strong, offensive patrols. But the Japanese gave him the pause he needed to achieve this. Potts withdrew, again and again, with a similar purpose, but his pursuers kept at him and denied him the opportunity he needed so desperately. The climactic affair at Efogi might have happened earlier had his men not fought vigorously and manoeuvred swiftly.
From these, and additional analogies, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Eather, or any other leader in Potts’ circumstances, would have had to follow precisely the line of action which the latter had followed. It was unfortunate for Potts, therefore, that Blamey thought it desirable to transfer him to Darwin (a comparative backwater) soon after the 21st Brigade was relieved. Rowell and Allen had not wished him to go. Blamey and Herring, who did not at that time understand so well the circumstances in which Potts had found himself and the way he had acquitted himself, genuinely misjudged him.
What of the judgments which had weighed the men and professed to find them wanting? Stronger than his statement to Mr Curtin regarding “lack of efficiency” were General MacArthur’s reports to the military leaders in America. His lack of confidence was certainly justified in the case of one militia battalion, but the connected story of the others testified that his strictures were quite unwarranted. In the beginning the lack of confidence undoubtedly arose from lack of knowledge of the nature of the country and of the problems of a form of warfare with which he was not familiar. Perhaps, too, he did not understand the Australians’ day-to-day account of operations. At the beginning of September, and referring particularly to reports of the Milne Bay operations, General Vasey had written to General Rowell:
... I am more convinced than ever that our reports need to be written in Americanese. They [the Americans] don’t understand our restrained English.
The remark points to the whole field of difficulties implicit in the integration of the forces of two or more nations. Further, MacArthur was struggling for additional forces of all kinds to enable him to begin his offensive. By depreciating the quality of the forces he already had, he could underline his needs. But, however critical their American leader might be of them, the men of the 21st Brigade felt that they had justified themselves.
Both the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions had started over the trail in the second half of August approximately 550 strong. On 19th September they numbered only 101 and 143 respectively. Since that date they had not suffered casualties, and small bands and individuals had rejoined them. But they were pathetically reduced both numerically and physically when, on relief by the 36th Battalion, they left Uberi on the 26th. They still had their “left out of battle” personnel as a nucleus on which to rebuild, and many men would return from hospital, but, for some time to come, they could not be considered a fighting force. Nor could the third battalion of the brigade, the 2/27th, whose story had been a separate one after they had been cut off at Efogi.
Between the time of the arrival of the 25th Brigade and the relief of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions, individuals or small parties had reported in to the Australian positions with news of the main body of the 2/27th Battalion which had been missing since the night of 8th September.
When they broke off the track between Menari and Efogi in the wake of the other two battalions Colonel Cooper’s men found, like the others, that the going was very difficult. In addition their wounded slowed them down—some walking, twelve being carried on stretchers by soldiers themselves since the native bearers had deserted during the fighting. A black night, overcast and drizzling with rain, added to their difficulties so Cooper decided to bivouac until dawn.
On the morning of the 9th he sent ahead those of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions who had stayed with him, and the fittest of the walking wounded, proceeding more slowly with the rest of his battalion. The men
were breaking their way through the bush, pulling themselves painfully up the steep slopes by means of trailing vines and trees, crawling on their hands and knees, dragging the clumsy stretchers with them. In the early afternoon Captain Smith,33 the staff captain from brigade, met them with seventy native bearers and that eased the situation although the soldiers themselves still had to carry five of the stretchers.
Shortly before that Captain Sims with his company and Lieutenant Sandison34 with two platoons of another company had been ordered to push ahead more swiftly to Menari, reconnoitre the situation there and assist, if necessary, to hold that position open until the rest of the battalion arrived.
Sims found Japanese in possession at Menari. The nature of his approach was such that he considered that to attack would mean committing his men two at a time over open ground. By this time he had lost all contact with the rest of the battalion so decided to withdraw under cover of darkness South-east along a creek bed below the Japanese positions to a point at which he calculated Cooper would strike the creek. But he could not regain touch with his unit. Next day, after spending much time cutting a track through lawyer vine, bamboo and secondary growth of all kinds, his men found themselves overlooking Nauro just as evening was falling. A patrol sent forward reported the Japanese in possession. Sims felt that attack was out of the question. His men had had little food since the 6th. It was now the 10th. Their ammunition was low. He conferred with his officers and they decided that they would have a better chance of survival if split into platoon groups. They therefore broke up and set out once more.
Sims’ own story indicates what was, in greater or less degree, the experience of all the groups during the days which followed:
We had our first meal when we shot a pig in a village on the 14th September. ... Most of the troops had dysentery and were very weak and emaciated. We’d go from daybreak till sunset. We burnt the pig meat on our bayonets. We were going to put a piece in our haversacks for the next day but, as we were going, two other groups came in and we gave it to them. They ate everything to the brains, eyes, intestines and broke the bones for marrow. On the 14th a chap shot a cockatoo and every bit was eaten including the bones. In the late afternoon we went up a steep spur and bivouacked opposite a waterfall where we had a shower. I had pneumonia and tropical ulcers. By the time I got back I had dengue too. Every man in the company lost 21 to 3 stone. ... We met patrols from the 2/14th and 2/16th cut off at Templeton’s Crossing and Myola—six or seven in each. It was the survival of the fittest. We’d separate and go on. Whoever could go on without calling a halt would get ahead.
It was not until the 17th that this group arrived back in the brigade area. Other groups continued to arrive during the next two weeks.
While these men were thus beset by a harsh country Cooper, with his
main battalion group, was faring no better. He had waited for a reconnaissance report from Sims but, having had no word by 5 p.m. on the 9th and having seen the Japanese at Menari, he set out to skirt the village leaving a platoon to direct Sims and Sandison on their return.
When there was no news on the 10th his men continued on their painful way. As with Sims’ company food was scarce since the most any one man had had when the battalion left the track on the 8th was a tin of bully beef and an emergency ration. On the 13th, however, they ate yams which they collected from a native garden, rested and checked their arms, ammunition and numbers. At that stage there were 18 officers and 293 men, including 12 stretcher cases and three men from the 2/16th.
They paused next morning to bury one of the wounded who had died in the night. The country tested them sorely again that day. At five o’clock they halted on high ground overlooking Nauro and cooked their yams as the daylight was fading. They made for Mauro next morning but, finding it occupied by their enemies, struck back into the bush once more.
On the 16th they reached a grassy plateau about three miles South-east of Nauro. They had left the stretchers east of Nauro in the care of Captain Gill35 and a strong party. That night they found more yams, and taro, in a deserted hut and ate them. When Cooper sent
That morning, the 17th, Cooper sent six men on ahead to make all haste to get a message through to Port Moresby concerning his whereabouts. The following afternoon this party met the Intelligence officer of the 2/16th Battalion and, through him, the message was received at divisional headquarters soon afterwards; but the rest of the battalion, struggling along behind the messengers, was still finding the journey arduous, suffering from the cold and wet and lack of food. It was not until midday that they reached Jawarere where Major Robinson, commander of Jawforce, gave them food and made them as comfortable as he could. On the 22nd they were on the last stage of their journey and when they struck the road were met by trucks which moved them quickly to a convalescent camp on the outskirts of Port Moresby.
For the stretcher parties, however, the ordeal was not yet over. On the 18th Colonel Cooper had sent a message to Captain Gill that he was to move the stretchers to a nearby garden and then leave them there to be picked up later. Gill then provided what food he could for the sick and wounded, settled them in a cultivated area several miles east of Nauro, and on the morning of the 19th left them in the care of Corporal Burns38 and Private Zanker39 who had volunteered to stay.
By that time Burns and Zanker had seven stretcher cases and nine walking sick and wounded to care for, their sole supplies being ten shell dressings, a bottle of morphia and a syringe—and a garden of yams. They made crude shelters but, despite them, sweltered in the heat and were soaked by the afternoon rains. Aircraft flying above their positions raised their hopes but they could not attract their attention. There was firing near by. Burns wrote later:
Monday [21st September] arrived after a terrifically cold night. The boys were very restless all night especially Corporal Williams40 and I sat with him for the best part. The heat and flies were so bad that they almost drove us to the first stages of insanity. The heat was terrific and the flies—I think we had all that were in New Guinea. The lads all received a wash and shave this morning, my shaving gear, facewasher and toothbrush serving everyone. Corporal Williams and Private Burke41 felt the going very hard from this stage on. We had to be with them day and night. ... Wednesday 23rd was one of our hardest days. The sun was fiercer than ever and it took a lot out of the lads. Corporal Williams spent a terrible night and when Zanker and I had washed the lads we decided to put him on a new stretcher and put the first fresh dressings on his wounds. It was a terrific job but
we succeeded in the end. Both Zanker and I had a couple of blackouts during it. We had now used two of our last three dressings. ... The lads had run out of smokes too and I collected a few likely looking leaves but I’m afraid they weren’t quite the right type. Diarrhoea broke out during the day and we were lifting the poor lads for the next twenty-four hours without respite. After spending most of the night on the go Friday dawns with a blazing hot sun and millions of flies. Again I spent the night with Corporal Williams and at 0800 hours he had a drink and at 0810 hours we found him dead. We immediately dug a grave approx three feet deep by means of a tin hat and a machete. It was a hard hour’s work. At 0930 we buried him with just a little prayer. ... The 25th arrived. ... Private Burke of the 2/16th Bn had taken a definite step towards the end at this stage and he lapsed into semi-consciousness. He was in a bad way. There was nothing we could do for him except a dose of morphia to put him out of agony every now and then.
On the 27th Burns sent off the strongest of the walking cases with a native who had promised to guide them to Itiki. There were five of them. Later in the day the men who had remained became alarmed to see Allied planes strafing the track only 200 yards from them. Heavy rains soaked them. Many of the wounds were fly-blown. At midnight Private Burke died and Burns and Zanker sadly buried him beside Corporal Williams. All were feeling the strain badly now:
We read the New Testament as much as possible and had general discussions on different subjects to try and keep their minds occupied. ... The 30th September finds the boys’ morale and spirits very low. We shave and sponge the lads again but the smell was getting too strong to stay beside them too long. If only we could have had some dressings for them! ... Heavy rains in the afternoon almost flooded us out. Private Martlew42 took a turn for the worse and we had to watch him very closely. The flies were worrying Corporal Roy McGregor43 very much and we spent the hours of daylight taking it in turns to keep them away from him. The yam stock was beginning to run low so we were praying for help more than ever.
On 2nd October one of the four separate patrols which had been looking for them found them. There was a medical officer with the patrol, Captain Wilkinson44 of the 2/4th Field Ambulance, and Warrant-Officer Preece of Angau was there with a carrier party. But much hard travelling still lay before them. They did not reach hospital in the Port Moresby area until the evening of the 7th. Later Burns wrote:
No tribute can be paid which is too high for those native bearers, for without them it would have been impossible to have reached safety in time to save the lives of two of our men. And to their master WOII Ron Preece of NGF—his name will be a byword to the boys of the stretchers for a long time.
In the whole operation the 2/27th Battalion lost 39 men killed and 2 missing, believed killed; 3 officers and 43 men were wounded. These figures were naturally lighter than those of the other two 21st Brigade battalions which were in action much longer than the 2/27th. The 2/14th suffered a total of 244 battle casualties-6 officers and 75 men killed
or died of wounds, 2 officers and 29 men missing, 6 officers and 126 men wounded. In addition four men died from sickness and other causes. The 2/16th battle casualties were 4 officers and 65 men killed or died of wounds, and 4 officers and 90 men wounded. The proportion of “sick” to battle casualties was estimated at 2 to 1.
The men of the 21st Brigade had set an example of gallantry and endurance that the incoming brigades might well follow.