Chapter 15: The Australians at Buna
ON 7th December General Blamey wrote from Port Moresby to the Chief of the General Staff, Lieut-General Northcott, in Australia:
“We are now suffering the very common lot of armies who have advanced beyond the region of capacity for supply, and, as a result, are being held up by limited Japanese forces which are jammed in narrow areas on the North-eastern coast. Except at Sanananda, the Jap front is not more than half a mile from the coast anywhere, but he is covered in on his front by the filthiest country imaginable and by extraordinarily strong defences. ... The bulk of our supply has to be taken in by aeroplane and landed on landing grounds that are not very good and sometimes are out of action on account of weather conditions. And while we have air superiority we are unable to utilise it to the full on the other side of the range, because as yet we cannot get strips strong enough to take fighter aircraft. The consequences are that as soon as our own protective umbrella returns, the news is flashed from Buna to Lae and the enemy comes out on strafing and bombing expeditions. We are unable to develop superior fire power because of the difficulty in getting guns across and maintaining the ammunition supply up to them.”
Blamey then referred to instructions he had recently given for an examination of the Atherton Tablelands, in north Queensland, to determine their suitability for use as a large-scale training area. He said he had it in mind to send to Atherton soon the 16th, 21st and 25th Brigades, and possibly the 18th, so that these formations might rehabilitate themselves there; to bring over from Australia to Milne Bay a brigade of the 5th Division; to build up his coastal forces with a second brigade from the same militia division. But even as he pondered these plans he emphasised that they were “dependent upon circumstances”. And indeed it was no later than the following day that he modified them.
Apparently he then recognised quite definitely that there was no promise of the Americans before Buna being able to force a successful issue, and so he determined to strengthen the attack there with Australians as soon as possible, thus realising a plan of which he had already given some notice.
Before arriving at this decision, however, he had considered the strength of the Australian Army generally, had forecast to the Prime Minister, in a letter on 4th December, the necessity for a further reduction of the Order of Battle by another division because of the lack of manpower and had asked for the return of the 9th Division from the Middle East. He wrote:
I had hoped that our strategical plans would have been crowned with complete and rapid success in the tactical field. It was completely successful strategically in as much as we brought an American Division on to Buna and an Australian Division
on to Gona simultaneously. But in the tactical field after the magnificent advance through the Most difficult area, the Owen Stanley Range, it is a very sorry story.
It has revealed the fact that the American troops cannot be classified as attack troops. They are definitely not equal to the Australian militia, and from the moment they met opposition sat down and have hardly gone forward a yard. The action, too, has revealed a very alarming state of weakness in their staff system and in their war psychology. General MacArthur has relieved the Divisional Commander and has called up General Eichelberger the Corps Commander, and sent him over to take charge. He informs me that he proposes to relieve both the regimental commanders, the equivalent of our brigade commanders, and five out of six of the battalion commanders; and this in the face of the enemy. I am afraid now that the bulk of the fighting will fall on our troops in spite of the greatly larger numbers of the 32nd U.S. Division.
The brigades that went over the mountain track are now so depleted that they are being withdrawn and I am utilizing the only remaining AIF brigade in Port Moresby and a brigade of Militia, that has been intensively trained here, and I think we will pull it off all right.
The Americans say that the other division which they left in Australia is a much better one than the one they have here, but since they chose this as number one, I believe their view to be merely wishful thinking. I feel quite sure in my own mind that the American forces, which have been expanded even more rapidly than our own were in the first years of the war, will not attain any high standard of training or war spirit for very many months to come.
This may appear to be a digression from the main subject, but it brings me to the point that in replacement of the 9th Australian Division we have been given two American Divisions, and as their fighting qualities are so low, I do not think they are a very considerable contribution to the defence of Australia. Of course, the American authorities will not admit this but will continue their attitude of wishful thinking. You will therefore see that if the 9th Australian Division is not returned for our future operations in this area we are going to be in a very bad way indeed. In fact I feel that our position will be definitely one involving considerable risk and danger.
The 6th and 7th Australian Divisions after the Buna operations are completed must have a prolonged rest out of action. They both have a very large number of reinforcements to absorb and a very large number of sick to return. This means that the defence of Papua will rest for a time mainly on Militia and American forces. My faith in the Militia is growing, but my faith in the Americans has sunk to zero. If the 9th Australian Division is not returned I fear very greatly that we will have to sit down for a very long time in this area in an endeavour to defend it, mainly by keeping the Jap flotillas away by air action.
At the time when the Australian Commander-in-Chief was writing in these terms, the position on the Papuan coast was that three of his veteran AIF brigades and his two most seasoned militia battalions had capped their struggles in the mountains with bitter slugging matches against desperate Japanese who, their backs to the sea, were obviously preparing to fight to the last man. Also, along the Sanananda Track, a militia brigade was on the eve of a bloody entry into the coastal struggle and an AIF cavalry regiment would soon be committed there. But, handily based at Milne Bay, the 17th and 18th Brigades of the AIF and the 7th Brigade of militia were a pool from which rested and battle-tried units might be plucked for quick use against the stubborn enemy on the Buna–Gona coast. None the less, Blamey could not commit these formations lightly. He had a nice balance to preserve between: the possible necessity for meeting fresh seaborne attacks against South-east New Guinea and the
adjacent islands; a pressing need to resolve the coastal stalemate (but in face of the maintenance difficulties he had sketched for Northcott); a need for fresh and experienced troops to carry the fight deeper into Japanese-held territory after the Papuan phase was ended (for the preparation of whom he was planning to use the Atherton Tablelands). But events made the second of these needs so urgent that it demanded the quick use of experienced men.
On the 8th, therefore, Blamey sent a peremptory summons for Brigadier Wootten, commander of the 18th Brigade. At the time Wootten was visiting his 2/12th Battalion on Goodenough Island. As his 2/10th Battalion, the original nucleus of the force which had been flown in to Wanigela, was divided between that point and Porlock Harbour, Wootten had only the 2/9th Battalion immediately under his hand at Milne Bay.
Already this battalion had only narrowly escaped being committed at Buna in a hazardous venture. Blamey had planned to land them on the beach immediately east of Buna in coordination with an overland thrust by infantry and tanks from the south of Buna. But, to his intense chagrin, the navy had refused to make available the two destroyers and two corvettes which he needed, and he himself could muster only sufficient small boats to carry about 400 men. He was therefore forced to abandon his plan, after orders for the 2/9th Battalion had actually gone to Milne Bay and that unit had begun training for an opposed landing.
When Wootten arrived at Port Moresby on the 10th he was told by Blamey of the impasse at Buna, and that he was to take there the 2/9th Battalion and one battalion of the 7th Brigade, together with two troops of tanks from the 2/6th Armoured Regiment which had recently arrived in New Guinea. His task was to clear the Japanese from the area enclosed by Cape Endaiadere, New Strip, Old Strip, and Buna Government Station. Wootten, since he naturally preferred to work with his own men, requested that the 2/10th Battalion be substituted for the 7th Brigade battalion, which request Blamey readily granted, although it would involve a rapid move by the militia battalion to relieve the 2/10th. Wootten flew next day to Popondetta, where he discussed the position with General Herring, went on to Dobodura and met General Eichelberger, and spent the afternoon of this busy day in reconnoitring the situation in the New Strip area. On the 12th the framework into which the 18th Brigade would fit was hammered out in conference between Wootten, Herring, Eichelberger, Brigadier-General Byers, and Brigadier Hopkins (Herring’s chief staff officer). It was decided that, after the arrival of his Australian troops, Wootten would take over the Warren Force sector including the Americans who were there. By this time a solid nucleus of his own staff had joined him, also Lieut-Colonel Hodgson1 of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment and an engineer officer from the 2/4th Field Company; the 2/9th Battalion was boarding the corvettes Colac, Broome and Ballarat at Milne Bay; and
the first of Hodgson’s tanks were already at Hariko. All of these preliminaries were swift, efficient and purposeful.
The corvettes, which, the preceding night when they were off Cape Sudest, had been so alarmed by a flare from an unidentified aircraft and a report of the approach of a Japanese naval force that their captains had thought it wise to return to Porlock Harbour, landed the infantry at Oro Bay on the night of the 14th–15th. These, in full battle order, followed the soft sea sand round the water’s edge on the 15th, struggled chest deep across the Samboga River, and sweated through the muggy day to Hariko.
Ahead of them four tanks, from “C” Squadron of the armoured regiment, which Captain Whitehead2 had brought round from Port Moresby in the Karsik a few days earlier, had already gone forward to a lying-up area in the rear of brigade headquarters. These, with four more, from Major Tye’s3 “B” Squadron which had gone direct from Australia to Milne Bay in early November, due to arrive from Milne Bay within the next day or two under Lieutenant McCrohon,4 would constitute an improvised “X” Squadron under Whitehead’s command.
The tanks were of the type known as American M3 Light or “General Stuart”, each of 14 tons weight, 14 feet 7 inches long, 8 feet 8 inches high and 8 feet wide, propelled by a 250-horse power radial engine, capable of a maximum speed of about 40 miles an hour and armoured to an average thickness on the hull of 1 inch and 1.3/4 inches on the front of the turret. Each mounted co-axially in the turret a 37-mm quick-firing gun and one .30 Browning machine-gun, had a second Browning in front of the hull and carried a spare Browning inside. Each was fitted with a No. 19 wireless set under normal conditions providing internal communication from the tank commander to his four men, voice transmission up to about 10 miles, and communication with the standard infantry pack set (although in the tropical bush all wireless communication was, at the best, chancy and intermittent). The tanks’ cross-country performance was good on suitable ground but could be limited severely by heavy timber, water, swampy or very rocky ground, and wide trenches. The crews would not normally use their vehicles at night (although they had powerful headlights). The smallest tactical unit was the troop consisting of three tanks, each with a crew of five. Within the troop, training stressed constant contact and mutual support.
The crews who manned these tanks were highly-trained men who had been carefully selected when the Australian armoured division had begun forming in 1941. The ambition of this division had always been to measure itself against the Germans in the Libyan desert. In August-October its training had been polished by three months of manoeuvres on the western plains of New South Wales, by far the largest and most elaborate military
exercises carried out by Australian troops up to that time. And it was straight from that training that the 2/6th Armoured Regiment, a New South Wales unit claiming descent from the veteran 6th Light Horse, had gone to New Guinea, to a battlefield which, with its mud and reeking bush, was the complete antithesis of the setting for which they had trained. Though they did not know it then their detachment heralded the gradual break-up of their division for its units were destined to fight only piecemeal (and only in the Pacific), or never to fight at all, despite the fact that few critics would have quarrelled with this judgment of a newspaper correspondent after he had seen their manoeuvres end:
It is very doubtful if [before going into action] there has ever been an Australian division fitter than this one, or prouder, or keener for action; or a division in which discipline has been crisper and the bearing of officers and men better.5
The four officers who, at Buna, were to take in the first troops of the armoured division to see action, were worthy representatives of the leaders of this formation. There was Hodgson, the 2/6th’s commander, 39, formerly an English territorial officer, tall, spare, aloof, a cool and confident leader and hard taskmaster, greatly respected by his men; Whitehead, a massive fourteen and a half stone product of the land, broad shouldered and confident; Lieutenant Curtiss,6 troop commander, just over 29, short and plump, determined not to fail those who looked to him; McCrohon, tall and straight, a veteran of the Western Desert where he had served in the 6th Divisional Cavalry.
The courage and ingenuity of such officers, and the men they led, were to be severely tried even before they entered action, merely in getting their clumsy 14-ton vehicles forward at all. It will be recalled that the mid-November attempt to do this had resulted in the only available craft sinking at its moorings at Milne Bay taking with it the first tank that was loaded. Though the availability of ships like the Karsik partly overcame this problem it did not solve it completely. Whitehead’s and McCrohon’s tanks (and those which followed later) were off-loaded at Oro Bay on to clumsy barges which they rode precariously, the water lapping a mere 2-inch freeboard. Motor launches then towed these through the reefs until they were off Hariko. There the launches, swinging as close inshore as possible, cast the barges off, of necessity leaving the tanks to get ashore as best they might. The crews then drove the tanks over the side with a lurch and a splash. Once ashore they followed the beach along to their assembly area with one set of tracks in the sea and the other just above the low water line so that the incoming tide would wash away the marks of their approach. “The transportation and landing of these tanks in and around Hariko, some few miles from the battlefield, was an amazing achievement in view of the equipment available to the men charged with the task,” General Herring was to write later.
By the 16th Brigadier Wootten’s initial move was virtually complete. Of the Australians he then had immediately to hand the 2/9th Battalion, 26 officers and 638 men strong, including 127 reinforcements who had only just joined; the squadron of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment; five carriers of the 17th Brigade carrier group; detachments of the 2/4th Field Company and the 2/5th Field Ambulance. At Porlock some 34 officers and 648 men of the 2/10th Battalion were preparing to embark on the corvettes next day. The main artillery support would come from the Australian guns: the field gunners under Major Hall and Captain Manning, with Manning’s four guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment still deployed off the track near Ango and Hall’s four guns of the 2/5th still just forward of Hariko; the mountain gunners under Major O’Hare whose three 3.7’s had been moved not long before by General Eichelberger to a position on the Dobodura–Buna track about 2,000 yards below the bridge which ran between the strips.
The Americans of Warren Force who would also come under Wootten’s command included: the III/128th Infantry, now under Colonel MacNab, holding from the coast to the vicinity of the eastern end of New Strip; the I/128th Infantry extending westward thence below the southern edge of New Strip, with Major Gordon M. Clarkson, a dashing young regular, formerly of General Eichelberger’s staff, commanding in place of Colonel McCoy; the incomplete I/126th Infantry still below the bridge which separated New and Old Strips but now led by Major Beaver, one of the divisional staff, who had proved himself a brave and resourceful leader when such were most needed. A little more American help would come to Wootten also from the one American artillery piece in the area: the 105-mm gun set up near O’Hare’s three howitzers.
At 9 a.m. on the 17th Wootten, in accordance with General Eichelberger’s direction, assumed command in the Warren Force sector, taking over from Colonel Martin who became in fact commander of Wootten’s Americans. Wootten stated that his immediate intention was that the 18th Brigade Group should capture the area Cape Endaiadere–New Strip–Old Strip–Buna Government Station. But this obviously had to be carried out in phases. The first phase would be the capture of the whole area between the coast as far as the mouth of Simemi Creek on the right and, on the left, a line running from the east end of New Strip to the west end of Old Strip thence along Simemi Creek to its mouth. The 2/9th Battalion would be the striking force, supported by seven tanks, aircraft, artillery, and American mortars. One tank, the two battalions of the 128th Regiment, the 2/10th Battalion from the time of its arrival at Hariko, and the 17th Brigade carriers, would constitute the reserve.
In the last light of the 17th the seven tanks lumbered forward to their assembly area. In McCrohon’s troop Corporal Evan Barnet,7 a slight, dark, young man of 22, commanded one tank; Sergeant Jack Lattimore8—tall,
thin, highly-strung--commanded the third tank. In the other troop Curtiss had an unassuming but steady corporal named Cambridge9 and a capable sergeant, John Church.10 The seventh tank Whitehead proposed to take in himself.
Aircraft which, with the roar of their own engines, were to cover the noise of this moving armour, did not come over. In consequence the Australians feared that surprise might have been lost, but this was now a chance which had to be taken. Quietly, after the tanks, the men of the 2/9th Battalion made their way through the darkening bush by the sea to their own assembly area—a space near the water-line, less than half a mile below their start-line which had been marked with signal wire for 400 yards, bearing 240 degrees from a point on the water’s edge which was east-South-east of the end of New Strip. A rusting carrier, relic of
Lieutenant Fergusson’s ill-fated attack of 5th December, was a pointer to the course of this line, and a grim warning to the men of the 2/9th of what their own fates might be. Going into battle was for most of them not a new experience; they talked quietly in the night, and many were restless but did not care to show it, and each mentally prepared himself as he lay with his own thoughts through the long night.
They were early astir on the 18th, began to move to their forming-up place at 5.30 and, soon afterwards, MacNab drew his Americans back
from the vicinity of the start-line to make way for them. Lieut-Colonel Cummings of the 2/9th was using three companies forward, aiming to capture first a strip of ground approximately 500 yards from the water’s edge as far as Cape Endaiadere and continue thence over approximately the same width until he held the line of Simemi Creek: on the right Captain Griffin’s11 company, making for the cape itself on a 250-yard front, McCrohon’s three tanks with them; in the centre Captain Taylor’s,12 extending the front for a further 250 yards—with Curtiss’ armoured troop; turning about half left Captain Parbury,13 with orders to establish his men firmly at a point some 200 yards roughly north of the eastern end of New Strip, where a grassy space ran up to the edge of the plantation, and protect the flank and rear of the main move against the most obvious possibility of Japanese reaction, at the same time determining the Japanese positions in the swamp and bush to the west. Captain Benson’s14 company was in reserve.
The weather prevented aircraft from assisting the attack but at 6.50 a.m. the guns opened, Manning’s shells searching for the log barricade which had barred the Americans for so long, Hall’s falling round the top of the eastern end of New Strip, O’Hare’s reaching high into the air before they turned for their steep dive into the centre of the main positions.
Precisely at 7 the attackers crossed their start-line, the tanks spaced out in line and throttled down to the deliberate pace of the infantry who, for the most part, moved beside or close behind them. To the watchers it was an unforgettable picture as the three companies walked upright with seeming nonchalance directly at a line of strongpoints which stretched like an unseen bar before them from the sea to the end of the strip. Each of these was a small fortress, cunningly concealed and camouflaged; some were protected by interlaced coconut logs covered with six feet of earth, some were steel roofed, others were concreted. From them fire withered the infantry, particularly Parbury’s unsupported leftward-veering men who fell among the long coarse grass as though an invisible giant hand were sweeping them from their feet. But the drive along the main axis carried forward with extraordinary phlegm, the tanks battering at post after post, the infantry closing in to hurl their grenades through the small openings, to kill the fanatic defenders to the last man with none asking quarter, to go on implacably from one post to the next, steadily beating the undergrowth as they went (they had learned the need for this at Milne Bay) to try to ensure that no living men remained in their path.
It was a spectacular and dramatic assault, and a brave one (General Eichelberger wrote later). From the New Strip to the sea was about half a mile. American troops wheeled to the west in support, and other Americans were assigned to mopping-up
duties. But behind the tanks went the fresh and jaunty Aussie veterans, tall, mustached, erect, with their blazing Tommy-guns swinging before them. Concealed Japanese positions—which were even more formidable than our patrols had indicated—burst into flame. There was the greasy smell of tracer fire ... and heavy machine-gun fire from barricades and entrenchments.
Steadily tanks and infantrymen advanced through the spare, high coconut trees, seemingly impervious to the heavy opposition.15
Swift-moving, even in this company, and with his way probably less densely disputed than that of the others farther inland, Lieutenant MacIntosh16 was leading Griffin’s right forward platoon along the edge of the coconuts and through the scrubby bush which fringed the sand sloping gently away to the water’s edge. When he crossed his start-line he had Corporal Barnet drive his supporting tank directly for a strongly-logged post on his right which MacIntosh himself and Barnet had found by crawling forward from the American positions the previous night. There were two machine-guns there, five Japanese manning them. The tank blasted the post and MacIntosh’s men closed in, grenading. Two of the defenders crawled out of the smoking wreckage into the two-foot-high grass which surrounded it. One wounded Lance-Corporal George Tyler17 in the arm but the corporal then shot him dead at five yards’ range. Just to the left Corporal Thomas’18 section was hotly engaged from a post which MacIntosh had not seen the previous evening. Some of the defenders there were using a Bren gun and grenades which they had taken from Fergusson’s carriers after they had been abandoned on the 5th. One of the grenades burst almost in Thomas’ face as he dashed for the post, but, blood pouring from his face, he plunged on and killed two of the Japanese. A third fired at him with a Bren which stuck out between two of the logs walling the post. Seizing the gun by the muzzle Thomas wrestled for its possession and then dragged it through the opening and killed its previous user with it. Then he fought on (and for two more days, only leaving the field then on MacIntosh’s orders). The platoon and the tank then beat down three more posts which disputed their way to the cape, and were first on the objective. By 8.10 a.m. they had turned westward along the sea line towards Strip Point.
Though MacIntosh’s break-through had been swift, Griffin’s other forward platoon, Lieutenant Sivyer’s,19 had been less fortunate. They were fighting their way through the long lines of coconuts and the kunai grass which grew between them. As they approached the cape, but still possibly 200 yards at least below it and the position MacIntosh had taken up, a concrete post stopped them with a well-aimed torrent of fire which took a heavy toll of them, although MacIntosh’s men tried to help with
machine-gun fire from the seaward side. Sivyer himself was killed there, his sergeant, Prentice,20 wounded. Griffin then sent Sergeant “Shorty” Walters21 to take command. But Walters, crawling forward, was shot through the head, and the command fell finally to one of the corporals.22
Difficult though this day was, however, for these men of Griffin’s, it was even more difficult for Taylor’s company on their left. When Griffin first reached his objective about 8.10 Taylor’s men had at least 200 more yards to cover before they lined up. But they had been so badly mauled that temporarily they could make no further progress. Griffin’s left flank in consequence remained unsealed. Cummings therefore sited some machine-guns with the dual purpose of covering Griffin’s weakness and thickening Taylor’s toiling front.
Meanwhile, in his angled left-flank role, Captain Parbury was in even greater difficulties at the eastern end of New Strip. There his men had plunged into a regular hornet’s nest. The company was being cut to pieces by both light and medium machine-gun fire from what seemed to be many immensely strong posts. Even before leaving the start-line they had begun to lose men and, as soon as they crossed the line, came under terrific small-arms fire. Without tanks, they had lost 46 out of 87 men in less than ten minutes in an advance of only about 100 yards. The commander of the right forward platoon, Lieutenant de Vantier, was killed with all his NCO’s, except one who was wounded. (Among the killed was Sergeant J. Gordon who had been conspicuous in the fighting at Milne Bay.) Parbury then lost touch with this platoon and feared that it had been completely wiped out. He ordered his remaining men to ground so that some at least might survive and then the grass, two feet high, hid them. When he phoned the news to his commanding officer, Cummings suggested that he try infiltration tactics with one of his sections to see if it perhaps might be able to get through the barrier of Japanese posts which larger groups could not breach. Parbury thereupon sent Lance-Sergeant Morey,23 from Warrant-Officer Jesse’s24 reserve platoon, on this mission. But Morey, one of the rapidly dwindling band of the battalion’s “originals”, was killed with all his men before they had gone 20 yards. The balance of the company, some 60 yards in front of the most forward Japanese positions and about 100 yards from the main bunker line, then lay waiting for tanks to come to their aid.
By that time, from his reserve position where he was ruthlessly destroying any Japanese remnants who had remained alive in Griffin’s and Taylor’s wakes and was trying to get at strongpoints which were biting at the edges of the forward companies, Benson had sent one of his platoons to thicken Parbury’s small remaining numbers. Clarkson’s
Americans were also trying to help in response to an appeal from Parbury to close in on his left flank. By crawling through the long grass they got some distance forward unscathed but then stopped some 30 to 40 yards in rear of the Australians whom they helped by passing wounded back.
To Parbury, thus held, the tanks seemed to be a long time coming. But they were having their own troubles. When they had crossed the start-line Captain Whitehead was in the centre of their formation and just behind the others, intending to keep himself free as far as possible to control his squadron and to give help himself quickly where it might most be needed. But almost at once he realised that he must leave his troop leaders and their individual tank commanders to decide for themselves how best they could help the infantry. So he became virtually a foot-loose fighting unit. And, from the beginning, his part was spectacular. Scarcely was he over the line before he spotted a marksman high in a tall palm ahead of him. He said to Trooper Gordon Bray,25 his gunner, “Shoot him,” But Bray could not elevate his guns sufficiently. Whitehead then said “Shoot the tree down”. So Bray aimed a solid 37-mm shot at the point where the thick butt narrowed to the tapering trunk. The first shot nicked the trunk, the second chopped it through like an axe. The sharpshooter tumbled headlong in a neck-breaking fall and Bray gave him a Browning burst for good measure as the tank passed on towards the main defences. Time ceased to have any meaning for the crew. It was probably a little more than an hour later, however, that Parbury’s call for help first reached Whitehead. A soldier came knocking on his tank when he was somewhat to the Northeast of the eastern end of the strip and he swung round and followed the man to the west until soon he found himself against three strongposts. He took on the most southerly of these first and silenced it with four or five shots. But, as the tank turned against the second, Bray’s sights fogged over and, momentarily, a clutter of emptied shell cases blocked the swing of the gun. Whitehead himself was peering through the vision slit, his hands cushioning his forehead against the tank’s wall, his face pressed to the slit, when a brave Japanese leapt on to the tank and thrust the muzzle of his rifle hard against the slit and fired. The bullet and splintered pieces of steel gouged through Whitehead’s face and upraised arm from a range of only an inch or two. Blinded in one eye, dizzy and bleeding, he sat heavily on the floor of the tank, his good eye puzzled by flashing circles of light which went spinning crazily round his head. These (he was to learn later) were tracer bullets from a Japanese machine-gun which was set up a bare 10 feet away and firing directly into the vision slit. As his bewildered eye followed them round and round inside the tank his ear registered quick new hammering notes amid the already familiar clatter of bullets on the tank. Though he did not know it then these were from the spatter of fire which killed the soldier who had shot him. Two Australian infantrymen had been dogging the tank to
protect it. They saw Whitehead’s assailant only after he leaped back from the attack, flinging his arms wide in a gesture of exultation. In that moment of triumph they killed him. A little later the tank turned to take the badly-wounded captain out. A Japanese was firing at it from behind a tree. Bray sent a 37-mm shot straight at the tree and had a fantastically-clear vision of a pair of boots at the foot of the palm and a piece of blood-stained rag fluttering foolishly—all that remained of what had been the man.
The bleeding Whitehead was scarcely clear of his tank before his colonel took his place. As he plunged into the fight, Hodgson, true to his own teaching, was looking out of the open turret of his tank to get a full view of what lay ahead. An inevitable fate overtook him when a machine-gun burst spattered his vehicle. He slumped back into the turret badly wounded. It was scarcely 10 o’clock and both the senior tank officers were out of action.
Meanwhile, from the right, Barnet had brought his tank into the vortex among the coconuts in the central positions, leaving his infantry on the objective. He saw Hodgson ride his tank in. He got a call from McCrohon, who had his hands full, to go to the assistance of Lattimore who was in trouble a little deeper in the coconuts. He heard Lattimore calling him on the radio. “Come on Splinter! Come on Splinter!” He saw Lattimore’s tank bellied on a fallen coconut log. By this time, however, he was out of ammunition and wirelessed the stranded crew that he would be back. These, though their wireless could transmit, could not pick up his message and so were anxious and wondering as apparently he left them to their fate. But he filled up again quickly and was soon back. By that time the Japanese were lighting fires beneath the other tank in an attempt to roast the trapped crew who were squirting fire extinguishers through the apertures in a vain effort to scare their enemies off. To drive away the incendiaries Barnet then told his gunner, in whom he had great confidence, to aim as close as possible to Lattimore’s tank. “Take the paint off,” he said. Soon afterwards he left the vehicle the better to direct his successful efforts to “pluck the brands from the burning”. (Later the tank itself was brought safely back.)
Though McCrohon’s troop, thus in the thick of it, lost no tanks, Curtiss was not so fortunate. His own tank was the first casualty. About 8 or 8.30, fighting with Captain Taylor in the centre, Curtiss ran on to a stump, where he stuck. Like Lattimore’s men he and crew narrowly escaped being cooked when their enemies lit a fire beneath them. But, under cover of shots from their infantry, they leaped unhurt through the hatch. By this time Sergeant Church was on the scene but all his determined efforts to move the stranded vehicle were in vain. It burnt out. A second tank (probably Corporal Cambridge’s) was lost later in the day. McCrohon, by that time helping Taylor’s company in the central sector, saw it hurry past him streaming smoke after a magnetic mine had exploded against it, its commander making for a position farther back where he and his men might hope to escape the bullets of their enemies as they fled the flames.
Out of the turmoil that all this represented Curtiss appeared to a thankful Parbury about 1 p.m., he himself having taken over Church’s tank, and bringing two others with him. While the vehicles waited behind the infantry Parbury pointed out the opposing positions to the tank commanders. His plan was to have Warrant-Officer Jesse take his men forward in line with one section on either side of the two forward tanks and one moving between them. Jesse himself would move with the centre section to indicate the targets for the tanks by firing Very lights into them. From 30 yards forward and 70 yards to his right the eleven remaining men of de Vantier’s platoon would give supporting fire for the new move. This Parbury had arranged with Private Logan,26 a reinforcement who had joined the battalion only eight months before and now commanded what remained of the platoon. (Logan had reported back to him while Parbury was waiting for the tanks to come up.) The third platoon, Lieutenant Pinwill’s,27 would move behind Jesse’s tank-infantry line. Bren gunners would spray snipers in the trees as the main movement went ahead. Even as Parbury was putting the finishing touches to this plan it might, however, have been brought to nothing by three Japanese who came sneaking forward through the long grass to set the right tank on fire with incendiary bombs. But Parbury’s men riddled them before they could close.
About 2 p.m. the desperate move began. Jesse’s Very lights streaked into the Japanese redoubts and tank shells seemed to follow the paths they made. Brens clattered. Every Australian weapon was running hot. Several posts blazed high as the dried coconut logs took fire. And then the Japanese cracked. Some of them leaped in panic out of their defences screaming in terror. Then the Australian foot soldiers were dragging out the core of the resistance, grenading right and left behind and beside the tanks. Within half an hour they had cleaned out eleven of the bunkers and, from the remaining five, the defenders soon ran away. It was over by 3 p.m. with the panting Australians facing west just above the eastern tip of the strip, Americans packing round on the right and left, between 80 and 90 of their enemies dead about them, and at least as many more interred in the broken casemates which the Americans, mopping up behind the Australians, blew down upon any of the unhappy survivors who remained within.
By the time Parbury’s men had thus broken free of the defences on the left in which they had become entangled, Benson was swinging round his right, fighting to fill a westward facing line. Due north again of Benson, Taylor’s men, lunging forward with some of the tanks in the late afternoon over the short but perilous yards they needed, at last succeeded in pivoting westward round the base of Cape Endaiadere, to bring themselves into line with Griffin and close the latter’s left flank. Night found the Australians facing westward against the Japanese reserve line on a front which ran from the sea due south to the east end of New Strip.
Griffin was on the extreme right, his own right resting on the sea about 400 yards west of Cape Endaiadere, his front covering some 350 yards; Taylor held a 250-yard front on Griffin’s left; Benson was on Taylor’s left with an American platoon on his left; Parbury anchored the south, his left resting on the end of the pathway which ran Northeast from the strip to the coast.
With dash and hardihood which boded well for the rest of Wootten’s plans the 2/9th had thus completed their first task—for the loss possibly of 11 officers and 160 men,28 more than one-third of their attacking strength. But resolute though they were, they owed much to the tanks. Two of these had been burnt out, and one needed repairs to the vision slit.
Probably the area of the day’s operations was the most suitable for tanks in the whole Buna region. But even within that area the General Stuarts were like race-horses harnessed to heavy ploughs. Their speed had been designed as their protection and, since speed demands lightness, armour had been sacrificed to achieve it. In the plantation, however, among the high, coarse grass, through the swamp mud, over the bomb craters and shell holes in which viscous marsh liquid rose, they could merely grind in their lowest gear at the pace of a walking man, even if the necessity for cooperating with the foot soldiers had not demanded that they be kept down to this pace. They had not been designed as infantry tanks, and their crews had had no training for and experience of this role. Neither had the infantry been trained to work with tanks. So both had to improvise in the midst of fighting, even working out the details of their methods of communicating with one another as they went along. Although impromptu signals could be devised, the extent to which they could be used was small, for the tanks were almost blind in the Buna country, their vision, restricted at the best of times, being shut off by the tropical growth.
During the 19th the Australians finally cleaned up the area they had taken, adjusted their line, linked firmly with MacNab’s right across the eastern end of the strip, and followed the abandonment by the defeated Japanese of the other posts in that area by occupying the whole region of the New Strip. By that time the 2/10th Battalion was sorting itself out at Hariko. Wootten decided then to send the tried 2/9th in again next day with Captain Matheson’s company of the 2/10th to strengthen them. He told Cummings to complete the first phase of his previous orders, i.e. secure the whole of the area north of the strips and enclosed by the coast and Simemi Creek. Once again the guns and armour would support him (Major Moss,29 a dark, strongly-made man of more than average height whose thrusting approach to any problems which might beset him had earned him the nickname “Bull”, was now in command of the tanks, having arrived that day from Port Moresby with Lieutenant Gunn30 and
eleven men.) In addition to the guns and tanks whatever aircraft could be made available would help. The American ground forces would aid the new movement by sending MacNab’s men forward to occupy the ground the Australians left when they went ahead and by pressing with Clarkson’s from south of New Strip and Beaver’s at the bridge area.
Three bombers dropped fifteen 500-pound bombs over Giropa Point at 6.30 a.m. on the 20th. Shells, mortar bombs and machine-gun fire then crashed and spun into the area over which the 2/9th had to advance before the infantrymen rose from their cover and walked steadily ahead at 7 a.m., with Lieutenants Gunn and McCrohon spacing four tanks among them. Griffin’s company continued along the water’s edge, Taylor’s was still on Griffin’s left, Benson’s was to the left again and Parbury’s survivors were in reserve with twelve men from the transport platoon added to make up some of their losses of the 18th. At Cape Endaiadere Cummings was holding Matheson’s fresh company of the 2/10th pending the development of the battle pattern.
At first only sniper and harassing fire disputed the infantry’s difficult passage through the tangled undergrowth among the coconuts. Then, almost three hours after they had begun beating their way forward from their start-line, they broke out from among the regularly-spaced palms into the stunted bush and kunai-covered marsh country almost due south of Strip Point which was most typical of the Buna region and which spread its inhospitable width as far as Simemi Creek beyond which ordered rows of plantation trees lifted again. There Parbury passed through Taylor’s company (Taylor himself had just been wounded), which then fell back into reserve.
While Parbury and Benson now pushed across the 800 yards of the first of two clearly-marked patches of kunai, which proved to be rooted only in quaking ooze, and their men spread out across the base of Strip Point, Griffin, skirting the water’s edge, rounded the point itself and reported it free of Japanese. Parbury’s men then, with Benson’s close behind, tramped through the swampy bushland which led on to the second kunai patch. But this treacherous country had proved too much for the tanks. Two of them were bogged so deep that they were held fast and only the beach now offered any chance of getting the tanks forward. So Parbury’s company had no armour as they essayed the passage of the second kunai patch. Soon afterwards—it was now between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.—these ill-fated men were once more in trouble. The right forward platoon was close against the seashore and Lieutenant Pinwill’s platoon was on the left. Pinwill’s platoon temporarily lost touch with the one on the right and, detached, plunged into the kunai where they came unexpectedly against a Japanese defence line which seemed to run north from the creek to the coast. Although Sergeant MacCarthy knocked out one post with a grenade Pinwill’s advance was blown back by short-range machine-gun fire. He himself was killed with two of his men, four of the others (MacCarthy among them) were wounded and the remainder fell back upon the other forward platoon near the water. Private “Jock”
Milne31 of the Intelligence Section, trying to reach the platoon from battalion headquarters, was cut down by a sniper. Crawling on, he then missed the platoon perimeter and found himself among Japanese who bayoneted him. Then it was, as the long day waned, that the dying Milne left messages which men of his battalion were later to find and preserve. They were written in a small notebook, crumpled and smudged with dirt, the letters formed so unevenly by the pencil in his dying hand as to make them appear like the painful script of a small child. On one page: –
And on the opposite page:
Bombs are dropping all round me but somehow I feel quite happy about it.
Within about half an hour of Pinwill’s trouble Cummings himself arrived, and, while he and Parbury were talking over the situation, Griffin’s company, after following the coast-line round from Strip Point, joined them. Almost immediately the Japanese began to drop mortar bombs on them from 300 yards ahead. As the Australians were not dug in they were fairly caught and soon a number of them were hit, Parbury himself among them. The two companies then united under Griffin and covered Benson’s men with Vickers and mortar fire while his men tried themselves against the new defence line. But they fared no better than the others. The Australians (having lost another 25 of their rapidly shrinking number) then formed a blunt arrowhead facing west and, from a point on the coast about half-way between Strip Point and the mouth of the creek, spanned the narrowing tongue of land marked out by the coast and the creek in their approach to one another. MacNab’s Americans, who had been beating forward on the left of the Australians, then linked with Benson, and Australians and Americans thus faced the approaching night.
By this time it was clear that warding marshes and watchful Japanese were leagued to make a difficult business of any attempt to cross Simemi Creek. The most obvious crossing places were the mouth of the river, where the water was known to run shallow as it met the sea, and the point where the bridge spanned creek and fen between the strips. But the river’s mouth had yet to be gained, and as for the bridge area, the continued lack of success there by the Americans since their very first approach a month before boded ill for any further attempts. Their latest disappointments were very fresh for only that morning an attempted crossing by one of Beaver’s patrols had been blown apart when it was scarce begun; and an effort a little later by the 114th Engineer Battalion
to bridge the main gap in the decking under cover of smoke came to nothing. None the less Beaver was ordered to explore the creek line anew in the darkness of the coming night.
When the 21st came it was clear that the Americans had failed once more to find any solution to their problems. Brigadier Wootten then ordered the two battalions of the 128th and the main part of the 2/10th Battalion (which had concentrated round the eastern end of New Strip the previous afternoon) to search the creek for crossing places. The fresh Australians particularly set about this task with a will. They had old scores to settle with the Japanese, memories of their setback at Milne Bay to wipe out. So it was that neither the dirty, incredibly difficult, nor dangerous nature of the work deterred them, although they found it hard to locate the actual course of the creek itself in the spreading marshy bushlands, and many of the ways which their patrols followed led them through reeking mud and water up to their necks. In this wilderness the newcomers needed more than determination, however; they needed some lucky chance to aid them. Major Clarkson provided it. In reply to Lieut-Colonel Dobbs’ anxious questioning he suggested that it might be possible to cross where the creek twisted itself into a U-bend a short distance Northeast of the lower end of Old Strip. Dobbs at once detailed Captain Sanderson’s company thoroughly to examine the area of the bend. But the first light of the 22nd found Sanderson tired and bewildered and no closer to getting across. With the light Dobbs came to him, avid for results. The unhappy captain said: “My platoons have patrolled all night, Sir, and found nothing.” Dobbs replied very shortly “You know what to do when your platoon commanders can’t manage a job!” and swung away. To Sanderson’s deliberate brain this could mean only one thing. So he turned towards the marsh and creek and eased his thin length into the waste, now wading, now swimming, with two Brens covering him At last he came out on drier, flat ground, which was covered by two-foot-high kunai. Rather doubtfully he concluded that he might be on the Old Strip and, a little later, reported as much. He had seen no Japanese save two fleeting figures which disappeared into the bush ahead of him. As quickly as possible he got one of his platoons across by the route he himself had followed. So Dobbs had his bridgehead by the late morning. Major Trevivian’s34 company then followed Sanderson’s across and the two settled on the far bank for the night. In the dawn of the 23rd Captain Ifould’s35 company joined them.
Meanwhile the 2/9th, Northwest of the other battalion, had been ordered to complete the capture of the tongue of land which was enclosed on the right by the coast and by the creek on the left. Cummings tried as far as possible to rest and reorganise on the 21st but the inevitable patrols had to be carried out and the last Japanese rooted out of the area which
had already been taken. Warrant-Officer Donnelly36 of Griffin’s company, patrolling west along the creek, ran into almost point-blank fire from concealed positions. Donnelly himself, racing towards the origin of the fire, revolver in hand, was struck down by a bullet which penetrated his steel helmet. MacIntosh’s platoon then tried to assist and found that the trouble emanated from a group of five Japanese who, with two machine-guns, were holed up under the spreading roots of a big tree. But so determined were these five, and so well planned their position, that immediately MacIntosh could do no more than cover Donnelly’s platoon out and help the wounded back. Getting out one of the wounded, lying well forward and helpless, was a particularly ticklish task made possible only by the bravery of MacIntosh himself and Private Christensen,37 and the extraordinary coolness of Corporal Thorne38 who stood quite exposed to give them covering fire during their drawn-out task. This and other forays were a promise that there was still much fight left in the Japanese and the whole day, void though it was of any planned encounters, cost the 2/9th 4 killed and 6 wounded.
At 7.50 on the morning of the 22nd shells began to fall ahead of Cummings’ battered battalion as they waited on a start-line running almost due south from the coast and nearly spanning the wedge of swamp and bush, which, little more than half a mile ahead, narrowed to a point at the creek mouth. Ten minutes after the barrage opened the companies crossed the line, Griffin’s composite company on the right, “A” on the left (Lieutenant Thomas39 now commanding) and Benson’s in reserve slightly to the rear. Vickers machine-gun fire from their flanks whipped through the leaves of the trees and flailed through the long grass ahead of their wary and measured movement. They moved slowly, searching the long grass which closed them in and could hide any number of their cool enemies who would wait until the Australians were almost on top of them before they would disclose themselves. But at first only sporadic small-arms fire met the attackers until, shortly after 9, machine-gun fire caught Thomas’ company in enfilade from the right. This checked the advance while the dangerous and cold-blooded business of winkling out the opposition got under way. But worse was to come for, barely half an hour later, shells from what was supposed to be a Japanese anti-aircraft gun turned to a ground defence role, began to fall with disconcerting effect in the vicinity of the Australian start-line. They caught the headquarters elements sited there and, within a very short time, 20 of these, mostly mortarmen and Vickers gunners, were struck down. Soon afterward the attacking companies solidified along a line that was still considerably less than halfway to their objective with MacNab’s men, who had been moving up the line of the creek, closing on their left, and two tanks engaging the strong
posts on the right which were crossing the front with fire. By midday, however, the tanks had had to return to the refuelling point and the infantry, still behind the barrier thrown out by the searching machine-guns and with the grass ahead of them on fire, withdrew to the shelter of scrub. They were, therefore, little ahead in spite of a hard morning’s work, and the well-placed Japanese shells had continued to fall in their rear areas. But by 1.30 the tanks were once more on the move and soon afterwards Griffin was reported to be progressing on the right. None the less the new start was a difficult one for, less than half an hour after the resumption of advance was reported, both components of the composite company were denuded completely of their officers. MacIntosh was badly wounded by a shell burst, Griffin, a fine leader and athlete, hurrying to the spot, was killed, and his second-in-command, Captain Roberts,40 had an eye blown out by a shell fragment. This left Sergeant McCready41 in charge of Griffin’s own remaining men and Warrant-Officer Jesse in command of the composite company. Later in the afternoon Major Parry-Okeden42 (who took over when Cummings was wounded) gathered the
shreds of the three attacking companies into one and, with one tank remaining to assist him (the other was temporarily bogged), drove at the pill-boxes which were still holding out. So spirited was this move that, by 5 p.m., Parry-Okeden was able to report that the point area up to the mouth of the creek was in his hands although one strong position remained unsubdued on an island in the centre of the creek mouth. The 2/9th then settled to hold the ground they had won—at the end of a day which had cost them 8 officers and 50 men.
Thus six days of hard fighting had been needed to complete the first phase of Wootten’s attack. The next step—the clearing of the bridge between the strips—was, however, unexpectedly easier. When the third of the 2/10th’s companies, Ifould’s, crossed the creek below the old strip in the dawn of the 23rd Dobbs swung it left towards the bridge, reaching for the Japanese there and to link with Beaver and Clarkson (who had themselves linked about two days before). The Australian crossing of the Simemi had completely nonplussed the defenders, however, and the 2/10th occupied the vital bridgehead by midday, with few, if any casualties. The Japanese there had apparently considered impassable the swamps and creek in their rear, and the consternation which caused them to abandon without further struggle the sites which had defied the Americans for so long could be gauged by the fact that this was the first time they had left any of their coastal positions in such a manner. And their abandonment was precipitate for, by staying, they could still have galled their enemies sorely.
Quickly the American engineers under a brave and tireless young leader, 2nd-Lieutenant James E. Doughtie, set to work repairing the bridge for the passage of both foot soldiers and armour. Wootten then ordered Beaver’s 126th men across to keep closely in touch with the left flank of the 2/10th whom Dobbs now sent longitudinally up the Old Strip. By nightfall the 2/10th were 400 yards up on the right of the strip and 200 yards up the centre with Beaver on their left but angled back to the South-east, and Clarkson on Beaver’s left barely across the bridge.
The night which followed was marked by an unusual alarm. About 10 p.m. two fast boats were reported off shore and soon it was clear that these were intent on mischief. Watchers from the Old Strip saw tracer reaching out from the shore and 37-mm’s also took up the boat’s challenge. Then flames leaped from the water at Hariko as one of the Allied supply craft took fire—the barge Eva laden with artillery, mortar and small-arms ammunition. Soon after 11 the marauders made off. But they were not long gone before suspicion began to grow in the minds of some of the leaders ashore. The attacking craft were very similar to American torpedo boats of which six had just been based at Milne Bay under American naval command, with their forward headquarters at Tufi. Their task was to prevent Japanese reinforcements landing in the area Buna–Mambare River and to assist in protecting Allied shipping. It was possible that these, new to the theatre, had mistaken their own forces for Japanese. And this indeed proved to be so. Writing back to Australia from Port Moresby
on the 24th Major-General Berryman43 referred to the difficulties of the campaign and recent attacks on small supply craft made in error by Australian Beaufighters. He continued:
As if this is not enough, some motor torpedo boats attacked our small craft at Hariko last night and set one of them on fire which blew up. We strongly suspect that this was the first successful action of the PT boats which were operating, or supposed to be operating, in an adjacent area last night. However, keep this well under your hat and mention it to no one other than the CGS as it may not be true; even if it is we may never be able to prove it.
To this he added a little later “It is true and admitted”.
Despite this irritating loss the fighting went on on the 24th as planned Wootten had no intention of losing his advantage, and he told Dobbs to continue along the strip, with the assistance of one troop of tanks and with a fourth vehicle in reserve. These were the last serviceable tanks immediately to hand, the balance of the original eight; an additional eleven were only just leaving Milne Bay. Wootten was naturally wary of endangering the last of his armour, particularly as he knew that the Japanese had had in the area anti-aircraft guns capable of an anti-tank role. But these guns, in the face of air attack, had been silent for some days. Possibly they were out of ammunition; possibly the Australian gunners (who themselves inclined to this optimistic belief) had destroyed them; possibly their silence was merely the ruse of wily defenders. Whatever the brigadier’s own misgivings regarding the third of these possibilities might have been, however, he did not communicate them to McCrohon who was to lead the tanks in. Both he and his Intelligence officer, in briefing McCrohon, told him that he could disregard any threat from these guns which were known to be sited on the left of the advance. Looking Northwest along the strip, a rather indeterminate stretch of open ground covered with waving kunai and unevenly bush-fringed on either side, McCrohon asked to be allowed to take in all four tanks in his initial movement, saying that the front was too wide for only three. The brigadier was reluctant to concede this but finally McCrohon carried his point.44
At first, on the 24th, everything seemed to go smoothly. At 9.30 a.m., after a ten-minute barrage, the tanks went up the strip in line, 50 yards apart, with Church on the right, Lattimore on his left, Barnet on Lattimore’s left and McCrohon himself on the extreme left of the line. The infantry were hard behind them with Trevivian’s company on the right of the strip, Ifould’s moving up the strip and to its left, Americans left of Ifould again, and Sanderson in reserve. A sniper was worrying Ifould’s company, however. Right at the start the captain stood upright and engaged the marksman himself. But he lost the exchange, and his men, Lieutenant Brown leading them, left him dead as they crossed the line
as part of a steady general advance which continued for half an hour with tanks and infantry combining to sweep the defenders from their path. Then the picture changed radically. McCrohon’s tanks were concentrating on their front, searching for the pom-pom gun which was known to be sited off the end of the strip and which, they had been told, was the only gun they had to fear. They were still maintaining their original relative positions. Suddenly McCrohon saw a flash to his left front and then another; a hit followed, and the whole of the left side of the tank seemed to split. He told his wireless operator to warn the other tanks: “Get out! The ack-ack gun’s operating.” But the wireless was not working. The driver swung the tank round. McCrohon said “You’re headed straight for a crater!” The driver replied “There’s nothing you can do about it! I can’t steer!” And then the tank fell into the crater. The Japanese gunner took Barnet’s tank next. His shot crashed through the turret killing Corporal Jones45 and mangling Barnet’s arm. Then it was Lattimore’s turn. The shot found the hull gunner’s flap killing Trooper Forster,46 mortally wounding Corporal Leggatt,47 and blowing Lattimore’s leg off. Lastly, in this quick and very ordered process of destruction, Church’s tank was knocked out.
Now, denuded of their armour, the infantry were left bare to a destructive fire from the usual well-concealed and venomous strongpoints. Brown, in the centre of the Australian-American line, seemed to be in particular difficulties, faced by a redoubt about the centre of the strip, his men falling rapidly, uncertain as to the whereabouts of the Americans on his left whom he was asking to fire flares so that he might locate their flanks. It seemed too that the Americans had not been mopping up with thoroughness and the Australians were losing men to sweeping flanking fire from their rear and from trees. So the advance slackened after the loss of the tanks. In the early afternoon, however, Trevivian was able to advance a little more on the right until he approached the outskirts of the large coconut plantation which followed the coastline round from Buna Government Station and past Giropa Point, to end with its South-eastern tip lying against Simemi Creek on the one side and Old Strip on the other. There Trevivian was halted, and the rest of the day was given over to a policy of minor infiltration, and encirclement in the face of determined opposition, with the Australians having gained 500-700 yards for the day and lying in a backward-sweeping curve across the strip. To their left Beaver’s Americans were watching the flank, farther forward than the two left Australian companies but not as far advanced as Trevivian. Backing Beaver’s were Clarkson’s men who had been combing the swamp on the extreme left during the morning but had bogged there and been pulled out to give Beaver depth.
Fighting patrols were out in the darkness but made no gains. Then, with the 25th, Dobbs made a new move. Wootten emphasised to him what he called “soft spot” tactics and directed his attention to the Japanese right, which, he thought, seemed most likely to yield to pressure. Dobbs then planned to use there Captain Matheson’s company which had reverted to his command at first light, having previously been brought over from the 2/9th area to guard the bridge. He therefore sent them round the left of the Americans. But it was not until late in the day that Matheson found himself angled against strong Japanese positions which had stopped the Americans decisively earlier in the day. Beaver had come against these with a painful bump soon after 7 a.m. when he led off the new day’s American movement. Colonel Martin’s efforts to resolve the situation by a wide deployment of both Beaver’s and Clarkson’s men as the day went on achieved little more than to fold the Americans painfully against a number of harsh strongpoints. Nor had the Australians much more success to report. Trevivian had certainly gained a few yards but was hard held against one of the most outflung of the Japanese bunkers on the edge of the coconuts. Brown’s remnants were behind him and Captain Sanderson had taken their place on the left of the strip and the right of the Americans where he, like Trevivian, had gained a few yards but had then been stopped.
Dobbs now proposed that his three companies on the strip should drive ahead on the 26th while Matheson’s fresh men swept across from the left. The Americans would move forward on their flank against the positions which had been holding them up. But the day opened badly with a bootless foray at dawn by Lieutenant Rudall48 from Matheson’s company against one of the strongpoints which stood in the line of the company’s advance. And when the main Australian movement began at 7 a.m., fifteen minutes after the first smoke shell had fallen, it made only local ground. On the extreme right Trevivian had some small success by driving into one of the dispersal bays near the end of the strip. To his left Sanderson’s company seemed for a time to disappear into a welter of confused fighting as they tried to draw level and Dobbs temporarily lost touch with them. By mid-morning, however, they had burst through the positions which had been blocking them in the centre of the strip itself with Private Hughes,49 an aborigine, outstanding even among his fiercely fighting comrades as he shot and grenaded the defenders out of their holes. But their left was still held by a machine-gun post integrated with the defences round the anti-aircraft gun which had destroyed McCrohon’s troop and which was then giving Matheson pause about 100 yards to the South-west—the second of the two guns which had been a constant threat since the advance up the strip. The first, however, nearly 200 yards to the east of the second had just then ceased to be a problem as Beaver,
with one of Clarkson’s companies helping him, had overrun it. It was silent as they closed in on it, its ammunition gone.
Towards noon Wootten grew impatient. He told Dobbs that it was absolutely necessary that Sanderson and Matheson should drive on with all their vigour in an attack which the battalion commander now proposed for them at 3 p.m.; that Sanderson should then take out the medium machine-gun position which was holding him up; that Matheson, who was not moving quickly enough, should clear the remaining anti-aircraft gun position which was now holding up both Australians and Americans.
Smoke covered the beginnings of this movement. On the right of the strip Trevivian inched a little farther ahead but Sanderson’s attempted advance again lost its outlines in a savage flurry, with Lieutenant Gray50 and his platoon pushing frontally into the muzzles of the weapons on the company’s left front. Gray was wounded there with most of his men (only three of the platoon subsequently emerging unscathed). And still the defending post held out. At the same time Matheson was conducting a spirited encounter with the main gun position to the west. He had planned to smother the big gun with a sudden assault by two platoons under cover of 2-inch mortar smoke. But the thick smoke he had visualised became only wisps clinging about his men instead of hiding them, when Lieutenants Maclean51 and McDougall52 led them against the defenders. These, not to be stampeded, released a torrent of fire on the Australians, the core of it coming from a captured Lewis gun. Maclean and McDougall and a number of their men were hit when the issue was only just joined, though McDougall, who had previously been wounded on the 2/9th Battalion front and was concealing the fact, doggedly held to the last of his strength to remain with his platoon until they were dealing systematically with the enemy position. Some withdrew about 40 yards to engage the positions from the long grass while others, Sergeant Spencer directing them, stayed close about the posts. Something very like a particularly murderous brawl then developed. The Australians pounded grenades into the posts but several times Japanese hurled them back before they could explode within the defences. Wild-eyed but purposeful, one Japanese was firing blank rounds from the anti-aircraft gun as he tried to set fire to the grass and add flames to the confusion. Japanese riflemen kept popping stiffly up from the depths of the defences like marionettes and, as stiffly, sinking back into them again. The Australians called for petrol bombs but could get only one—which they splashed against the barriers. And then, almost suddenly, it was ended. The defenders were dead, with many dead and wounded Australians out of the 50 or 60 who had made the assault lying near them; Corporal Heron,53 who had led his section bravely, was lifeless right upon the enemy post.
Matheson then handed the gun in its concrete setting over to the Americans (much to Dobbs’ subsequent annoyance) and ranged a further 300 yards Northwest along the fringes of the strip before he settled for the night. To his right rear, however, the day was not yet spent; in the last of the light, the Japanese fell upon Trevivian’s leading platoon on the right of the strip so savagely that the platoon had to give up the ground it had won and emerged with only four of its number left.
This painful progress up the Old Strip had not yet brought the attackers to the end of the runway proper, and it was clear that a considerable effort was still needed before their opponents could finally be dislodged. The 27th was therefore given over to consolidation and local sallies designed to trim the edges of the opposition and tidy the Allied lines. As a result of these Trevivian, now commanding his own few men, the men (about 20) which Brown still had left, and a group from Headquarters Company, swept away a Japanese position just off the end of the strip proper, to the right, and on the edge of the coconuts which still sheltered the hardest core of the Japanese resistance. By the early afternoon Sanderson, the positions which had taken so much of his blood and sweat the previous day having been abandoned during the night, had conformed to this adjustment and Americans were strengthening both his flanks. Wide to the left Matheson’s men had also been astir, feeling their way along the edge of coconuts so far to the Northwest that the strip now lay well behind them and they were more than 1,000 yards ahead of the main body. Matheson was not easy, however, about a southward-running track which he had picqueted the previous night and down which, he felt sure, there was a Japanese position. Though Americans had come up to seal it off he could not forget it.
As though to keep down any Allied hopes which might be rising during this fairly encouraging day, the Japanese struck in unexpected strength from the air. About noon some fifty of their aircraft stormed down upon the battle area. But the Allies, who could have been caught napping by this attack, escaped lightly, losing only eight men. Possibly the planes did more damage to their own forward troops than to their proper targets but, if so, they did not appreciably dampen the ardour of the dogged defenders, who fell upon the right flank Australians during the early part of the night in a vigorous local assault. The first warning Trevivian had of this was soon after 9 when a great commotion suddenly rolled up out of the darkness. Sergeant McAuliffe,54 a calm leader who was now commanding Trevivian’s left forward positions, telephoned him then to say that he thought the Japanese had overrun the right front. Trevivian at once hurried Lieutenant Brown and his men towards the threatened point. Brown found the right front staggering in some confusion, gathered them and drove the marauders off in a sharp clash. Although he was wounded himself (of all the officers and NCO’s of what had been Ifould’s company, only Sergeant Harrington55 was now on his
feet) his crisp counter-blow took the Japanese before they had mounted machine-guns, otherwise the position could not have been restored that night.
The Australian and American efforts to adjust their own positions and finally squeeze their enemies off the Old Strip continued into the 28th. These now lacked any support from O’Hare’s mountain guns which had been silent since the early morning of the 26th when they fired off the last of their ammunition. Their resulting ineffectiveness, however, was not as serious as it might have been earlier for more howitzers had recently arrived: four 4.5’s of the 13th Field Regiment under Captain Stokes.56 Two of these were flown to Dobodura on the 20th and moved up the track to a position about 500 yards south of O’Hare. The other two were taken round from Port Moresby by sea, landed at Hariko on the 23rd and thence were dragged inland to complete the troop. They were to prove most effective as a complement to the field guns.
One of the 25-pounders was now proving spectacularly successful in a boldly-experimental role. This was “Freddie One” of Major Hall’s battery. It was hauled from the battery position near Hariko during the night 25th–26th December and sited forward of the bridge between the strips with (from the 27th) its observation post officer manning a look-out in a 70-foot high banyan tree some 1,300 yards ahead of the gun and in the bush off the southern side of the strip. Sergeant Carson57 was in charge of the detachment manning this piece and from him it took the name by which it was to become famous at Buna—“Carson’s Gun”. From the very beginning of its operations when Hall himself “shot-in” Carson’s gun its story was full of incident. The battery commander was ranging on a Japanese pill-box, using armour-piercing shot in preference to high explosive to lessen the danger to the Allied infantry spread close about his target area. His first shell disappeared through the 12-inch square embrasure of his target with the flash of its tracer flame bursting bright against the darkness of the aperture. (It was found later that this shot carried away the breech mechanism of a 75-mm gun which the strong-point sheltered.) Soon afterwards the gun settled down to a two-day duel with a triple-barrelled 25-mm piece which, at first, gave back rather more than it took. But, on the 27th, after a ding-dong duel during which the war became a purely personal one for the opposing gunners and in which, Carson’s men claimed, they eliminated three opposing crews, the 25-mm was completely silenced. This was merely a beginning, for Carson’s men were to claim more sniping successes as the days went on. And they would dispute, with such stories as the following, any assertion that you could not “snipe” with a 25-pounder.
The deadly accuracy of the laying gave the OPO the power of life and death over any individual Jap seen in the target area. Lieut ... Handran-Smith,58 the OPO,
would sometimes nominate his targets. ... When the Japs were withdrawing from the pill-boxes on the far side of the strip, Handran-Smith spied a Japanese giving orders to a couple of his men. The officer, or NCO, stopped momentarily in a short shallow trench. ... This trench had been accurately registered, and many Japs had been killed in its locality by direct hits.
Said the OPO, “I nominate that bloke for the next round”. Orders were quickly passed to the gun; all eyes were on the Jap. When the 25-pounder fired, the Jap appeared to sense that that round was meant for him. He jumped on to the parapet with the idea of making a dash. Foolish move! The onlookers assert that the shell hit him in the pit of the stomach. At all events he disappeared in instant disintegration.59
Such stories as these were borne out by the watching infantry: Major Trevivian said later that, when he and his men were fighting from the dispersal bays at the end of the strip, shells from the gun were clearing the tops of the bays by inches. “The draught wore a track across the top of the bays.”
But far behind the vivid flash of Carson’s gun the other gunners were going about their valuable but less spectacular work. Before almost every infantry and tank attack their shells streamed into the defences. And between these periods of high excitement they went on with their task of wearing down the Japanese will to fight on.
Each day brought heavy enemy fire. ... Each night meant continuous harassing tasks against the enemy. Harassing fire exhausted the gunners; but it did much more to the enemy, and, happily, cheered the infantry immensely.
The gun detachments who produced this form of fire nightly almost came to believe that the only ones “harassed” by it were themselves. ... From dusk to dawn the guns would fire irregular bursts at targets previously registered. Two or three men would work each weapon and the others of the detachment would lie close by, awaiting their turn. It is always a subject for amazement that a gunner can be sleeping soundly a few yards away from a 25-pounder in full blast, but yet be able to wake up immediately when an order is yelled to “Take post”.
At Buna, a shift at the gun on harassing fire meant leaving a sodden “bed” on sodden ground to become even more sodden in the tropical nightly downpour. It would probably be a minute or so before the guns were about to fire on some timed program. Few men bothered about dressing for these series. The usual uniform was hat, boots, identity discs—and little else.
Numbers One quietly report their sub-sections ready to fire. The detachments stand still and tense. The command, “Fire” breaks the spell. Four rounds are on their way in a beautifully timed salvo. Before the smoke clears, the breeches have clicked shut and another round is in the bore; the layers are again peering through their sights. Again and again the same performance is repeated. There is a respite for perhaps an hour or less, and the gunners dash back to their crude shelters to snatch a little rest. This is harassing fire as the gunners know it; not just once in one night, but many times each night for many nights.60
Despite such willing support, however, the attackers were still finding the going along the Old Strip very hard on the 28th. Trevivian, with his 30 or 40 men, was still the right pivot among the coconuts off the upper end of the strip and the lower end of the dispersal bays. In their efforts to clear the defenders out of the bays his men and Sanderson’s had drawn
somewhat apart and one of Clarkson’s companies was filling the gap from the left of the strip to Sanderson’s right. Sanderson was reaching to the Northwest to a point about half-way up the line of the bays. Another gap then opened between his left and Matheson’s right which was some hundreds of yards Northwest again. As the morning advanced more Americans filled this gap and were told also to close Matheson’s rear. Early in the morning, however, Dobbs complained to Wootten that the Americans were not keeping up with Matheson in his efforts to close more firmly on the Japanese and, about 8, Wootten told Martin that signs of resistance were being left behind by the Americans and that the employment of soft-spot tactics did not mean leaving centres of resistance of unknown strength behind. Out of this process of adjustment, however, the pattern that emerged on the morning of the 28th was that the Allied line stretched in an arc from Simemi Creek on the east for nearly a mile to a point less than half a mile due south of Giropa Point on the west.
The plan then was that Matheson’s company on the western end of this arc would pivot Northeast to the coast with Sanderson and the Americans conforming and supporting, and Trevivian forcing up from the other end of the arc. But though this purpose produced a day of bloody skirmishes and local forays, with numbers of Japanese appearing in American and Australian uniforms in attempts to mislead their opponents, there was little decision. As the Allies strained to tighten their grip their enemies strained to throw it off. Matheson had ventured far to the Northwest, and actually crossed over Giropa Creek. Fire coming from the south began to fall near him there and he decided that he was in the path of the Urbana Force advance, an assumption which was soon confirmed by his meeting some Americans of that force whom he was able to inform that the way to the coast south of Buna on that axis was open. He was becoming dangerously detached from his own main force, however, and so returned across the creek. He was then ordered to get astride the track which ran Northwest across his front to Giropa Point. Though he had strong misgiving about both the wisdom and necessity of this (since the cover of the grass and bush was to be preferred by both sides to the obvious temptation of the open pathway, movement off which, moreover, was not only concealed but almost as easy) he set Lieutenant Rudall’s platoon the task. Rudall got across the track uneventfully—but then the Japanese closed on him. He lost men quickly; he himself was shot through the hip; to send the other two platoons to him would have been folly. So he had to bring his men out. Rudall himself, an heroic figure on this as on other occasions, then insisted on staying with Matheson until the last of his wounded was on the way to an American medical post in Clarkson’s Company “C” locality. Only after that did he consent to set out for medical help himself.
The Japanese seemed now, however, to be thoroughly roused. Just before midnight they fell once more on Trevivian’s long-suffering few men on the right. Trevivian, with one of Sanderson’s platoons temporarily
added to his group, beat them off. But roving bands of Japanese, the killer instinct strong within them and fanned to white heat by desperation, were intent on getting within the Allied defences under cover of darkness. One of these, possibly having stolen up the track which Matheson had seen running away to the south from near the end of the strip and had left to the Americans on the 27th, broke into the headquarters area of Clarkson’s company (which was not far from the beginning of Matheson’s track) and laid about them with such a will that dead and wounded Americans and Australians strewed their wake. Among these latter were Rudall and a number of his men, killed with other sick and wounded at the medical post.
With his opponents so savagely alive along the Old Strip Wootten sought Dobbs out on the morning of the 29th. He was “bouncing the ball” impatiently, critical of the efforts of Dobbs and his battalion. Dobbs was sick, worn with the strain, heart-broken over the loss of so many of his men, only his courage sustaining him. There was heat in some of their exchanges until Dobbs finally received Wootten’s orders for the afternoon.
These centred on the use of additional armour—the balance of “B” Squadron which Major Tye had just brought round from Milne Bay. Tye himself, with four tanks, had preceded his main body. Having been warned by Wootten the previous night that his help would be needed he had these four tanks waiting near the bridge at 7.30 that morning. His other seven vehicles were with Captain May,61 his second-in-command, in the New Strip area.
Wootten told Dobbs that, to help him in an attack that afternoon, he could have Tye’s four leading tanks, and Lieutenant Emson’s62 company of the 2/9th who had been moved round to the bridge area a few days earlier to guard that vital link and act as brigade reserve. He was to drive Northeast through the coconut grove to the coast between the mouth of Simemi Creek and Giropa Point. The left of the attack would be on the position then held by Matheson’s company and the frontage sufficient to allow the attackers to settle so strongly on their objective as to be able to repel attack from either the South-east or the Northwest. The guns would lay down shells along the beach running South-east from Giropa Point for ten minutes before the infantry went in and after that would concentrate on covering the left of the attack. Clarkson’s Americans would maintain a rearwards guard as the attackers moved, facing west, South-west and south.
As Sanderson’s company had moved across to Matheson’s right in the early darkness of the morning Dobbs was using these two companies to give effect to Wootten’s orders. To them he added one of Emson’s platoons as a reserve to be used only as a last resort. That the attackers might need recourse to this, or some other, last resort Matheson for one had
little doubt. The unhappy memory of Rudall’s experience over this same ground was still with him and, from the wide left flank positions to which he had ranged, he had actually looked so closely into the Japanese positions now fronting him that he had certain knowledge of their strength. But his orders were now clear and so, with 46 men, he waited in the early afternoon for the tanks to come up, and Sanderson, also with 46 men, waited on his right. They were ready at 2 p.m. in the stunted bush and long coarse grass, looking towards the coconuts over a belt of stumps some 40 yards wide—the butts of palms the Japanese had fallen to build their strongpoints. But no tanks came. Then the start-time was set for 4 p.m. That hour came but it also brought no tanks. It was difficult for the infantry to know what to do. Colonel Dobbs, inviting all the fire the Japanese could bring to bear on him, then set out to find the tanks. Soon afterwards one appeared in front of Matheson. But, even as his men rose to support it, it moved into the belt of stumps ahead of them and stuck fast on one of the butts. Once more indecision gripped the infantry and they sank again into their waiting positions. It was possibly about 5.30 that three more tanks appeared (whether directed by the brave colonel or whether because they had found their own way it is difficult now to determine) and went forward into the denuded area in front of and slightly to the left of Sanderson whose men rose and went with them. At the same time Matheson’s forty-six started forward.
On the right the tanks soon came to a halt on the edge of the coconuts. Sanderson’s men also found themselves stopped as they tried to cross the cleared area and came against positions of considerable strength sited not more than 15 feet in from the first line of standing palms. On the left, however, advancing against weaker opposition, Matheson’s company kept on. Sergeant Mitchell,63 who had taken over Maclean’s platoon, then actually struck right through to the coast with Rudall’s old platoon, Sergeant Fee64 now commanding, covering his right rear and Sergeant Spencer’s platoon (formerly McDougall’s) similarly placed on his left. But just as it seemed possible that some good might come out of that day of errors—with Mitchell on his objective; with Fee backing him strongly; with Spencer’s platoon warmly engaging a probable threat to Mitchell’s left and Spencer himself, his tall, square figure planted firmly in the open, his square face unafraid, deluging converging Japanese with 2-inch mortar fire—the last error was played out. Confused tanks turned their guns on the foremost men. Matheson asserted that they gunned Mitchell’s men off the objective and “practically wiped them out”, striking down also some of Fee’s platoon; that Private “Snowy” Evans65 from the latter platoon raced across to one of the tanks and, springing on top of it with fire bursting all round him, hammered against the armour to attract the attention of the crew. But apparently they did not hear
him and went on firing. In any case it was clear that the day was lost and, about 6.35, Matheson shot green Very lights (the agreed signal for withdrawal) into the darkening sky and brought what remained of his company back to their original positions, with only 3 men left of the 13 who had started off with Mitchell and about 22 all ranks left out of his original 46. His brave second-in-command, Captain Mackie, was among the killed, and Emson of the 2/9th, eager to be in the fight, though it was not properly his, had been shot dead.
Matheson then joined forces with Sanderson who was himself wounded (though still refusing to admit this fact) and who had lost a number of men. Then the full darkness came.
In it the last of the tanks were still collecting themselves, mortified officers and men aghast at their failure and anxiously seeking the causes. It was clear that their confusion went back to the very beginning of their movement when one or more of the first tanks to start out from the bridge area bogged almost immediately. Then worse followed so quickly that, as 4 o’clock approached, no one appeared able to say with certainty just what the detailed position was in respect of the eleven “B” Squadron tanks which then seemed to be churning round the whole area of both strips. Major Moss (from the tank replacement area near the bridge) reported the position at 3.45: that two tanks were at the rendezvous which had been fixed; two were still somewhere on the way up to that point; two were bogged on the lower end of Old Strip; two were in reserve at the bridge; three were still at New Strip. A later report from him, timed 6.25, did little more to sharpen the picture: that one tank was in action; two were out of ammunition; one was knocked out; one was unserviceable; one was on its way to the front; two were still bogged and two others were trying to help them out; one was still in the reserve area.
These messages are the early and late chapters respectively of an obscure story of which almost the only certain fact is that the infantry did not get the organised help they had been promised at the time it was due. Most probably this was due to the inexperience of the tank men and the failure of at least one individual; to faulty and insufficient reconnaissance so that tanks moving to the start-line missed their way and became lost and tanks which did enter action found themselves in strange ground. Probably also Tye, anxiously questing too far ahead, was not available where a more experienced commander might have anticipated difficulty and resolved confusion. But, whatever the difficulties, and disappointments, they arose from no lack of willingness or courage on the part of the majority. Conspicuous in trying to meet the need were the two lieutenants, McCrohon and Heap,66 neither of whom were to have participated in the action. McCrohon, brave and experienced, saw the trouble begin and moving forward from the replacement area did what he could to reduce it. Heap, slim, deceptively mild in normal times, not
yet tried in action, took over a returning tank late in the day and hurried it back into the fight. On the battleground, however, the tank which had first appeared before Matheson’s company and was still fast on the stump, engaged all his attention. He did not succeed in salvaging the vehicle but finally got the crew out and left the field only when it was so dark that he had to walk ahead of his tank as he brought it back down the Old Strip. So he appeared finally to his anxious friend McCrohon who, back near the bridge, had seen all the other tanks in and feared that Heap had been lost.
The tanks, however, had no monopoly of mistakes that day. The attack was an error in itself. The waiting Japanese were too strong for two weak and tired groups, each much less than half a company in strength. And this was to be proved in very bloody fashion within a few days. But such a mistake could be explained by the necessity for finding out just how strong the opposition was. More difficult to explain is the decision to go ahead with the attack after the tanks first failed to appear, and night was fast approaching. An attack with such a background was foredoomed.
Through the darkness which settled over this unfortunate day, Japanese, still full of spirit, and true to what they had established as an almost nightly practice during the Old Strip fighting, sallied against the Australians’ right flank. But Trevivian’s men, adept now at meeting such dangers, shot high into the night 2-inch mortar flares which bathed the battlefield in a soft revealing glow. This flooded the startled raiders when they were only some 20 yards from the Australian positions. Four Vickers guns sited to the left of this front (near the Americans) to counter just such attempts then blew them into a twisting heap. The defenders pitched grenades into the mass of dead and dying men, while the aloof flares fell slowly towards the torn earth. When daylight came again Trevivian’s men counted 42 dead in the grisly pile.
Nevertheless Dobbs’ brave battalion was almost spent and it was well that new forces were arriving. Early in the morning of the 28th the 2/12th had left Goodenough Island and it arrived at Oro Bay that night. Colonel Arnold hurried ahead while the rest made their way up the coast to Duropa Plantation, the battalion’s strength 33 officers and 582 men. Arnold, originally an officer of the 2/10th, was at Dobbs’ headquarters well before lunch on the 30th, anxious to survey for himself the task he was about to undertake. By 8 p.m. he had issued orders to his battalion for their take-over next day of the area round the western end of the Old Strip where Sanderson’s and Matheson’s men were.
Wootten then told him to get ready to capture, on the first day of the New Year, that area of the coconut plantation which lay between the mouth of Simemi Creek on the right and Giropa Point on the left. He would maintain a frontage of 400 yards, taking off from the extreme west of the line the 2/10th and the Americans had established and striking Northeast to the sea through the coconuts over a distance of some 600 yards. On his right the 2/10th and III/128th (Colonel MacNab had brought the latter round from the eastern bank of Simemi Creek on the
30th, changing places with the 126th elements) were to press into the coconuts in conformity with the main movement. After Arnold had consolidated along the coast he was to turn South-east along the plantation and thus exploit back towards the Old Strip. Fearful of confusion similar to that which had marked the 29th, Wootten issued particularly strict and detailed orders to Captain May to support the attack with six tanks. Three more tanks, Lieutenant Thomas who had taken over Emson’s 2/9th company and been strengthened by the addition of another platoon (under Lieutenant Tippetts67), and a company made up of 4 officers and 74 men who had just arrived as reinforcements for the 2/10th, would constitute the brigade reserve. There would be full artillery support for the attack with Hall’s troop firing on registered targets on the beach for ten minutes before the start time and Carson’s gun engaging observed targets in the coconuts from first light until the attacking companies crossed their start-line. Dobbs was to lay mortar smoke at Arnold’s request and the 2/9th Battalion, from their positions on the eastern end of Simemi Creek, were to support the attack with fire along the beach east of Giropa Point.
The two left companies of the 2/10th Battalion fell back as Arnold’s men came forward on 31st December. Japanese marksmen picked off five of the fresh troops who exposed themselves as they moved into position and, intermittently, clusters of light mortar bombs fell among them. In his right forward position Arnold had Captain Kirk’s company with Major Gategood’s supporting them. On the left of the 400-yard line Captain Murray’s68 company was forward with Captain Ivey’s supporting. (The task of the support companies was to kill small enemy parties who screened the strongpoints from pits and whom the tanks might leave behind.)
It was clear and fine with an oblique wind which had ruled out the use of smoke when Arnold sent these men into the attack at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day, one man in each of his sections carrying a prepared demolition charge made of two pounds of ammonal, a grenade and a piece
of instantaneous fuse.69 May, in a control tank with which the rest of his tanks were linked in a wireless net, was with him at the battalion headquarters. Arnold deployed six tanks in front of the infantry. Three others he kept under his own hand so that he might keep his forward strength constant as any vehicle came back for ammunition or fuel replenishment or was put out of action. The artillery, their fire quickened by that of mortars and twelve medium machine-guns, had prepared the way, the machine-gunners (applying the lessons of Milne Bay) firing remorselessly at the tops of the palms and beating out of them the snipers perched there.
The tanks crossed the open ground first. When they reached the standing palms the infantry then closed upon them fast, packing the rear and flanks of the armour which had orders to conform to the walking pace of the foot soldiers. May had his tanks moving with smoothly-controlled precision as they first took on the Japanese soldiers who, from pits, screened the strongposts, and then battered at the loopholes and doors before the attacking infantry rushed them with their ammonal charges. These, hurled into the breach made by the tanks, finished any post they struck. But the Japanese posts were thickly spread and well manned so that, on the right, Kirk and Gategood struck serious trouble quite early. Machine-gun fire slashed into their men and marksmen picked them off. By 9 a.m. the two companies were out of normal communication with the rest of the battalion and for a long time a killing fire frustrated all attempts to make this disadvantage good. Messages could only be passed to and from them by tanks. Arnold tried to aid them by sending a 3-inch mortar but again well-directed fire brought this attempt to nothing, striking down many of the men engaged. About 10.20 a.m., with Kirk killed, all of his officers wounded, and only a remnant of his company left; with Captain Curtis70 the only unwounded officer in the other company and that company as a whole in only slightly better shape than Kirk’s (Gategood himself having been badly hit making a valiant effort to gather together the remnants of both companies); with the wounded able to be got back only slowly and with the greatest difficulty; Arnold ordered Captain Suthers, with elements of Headquarters Company, to circle to the assistance of his right by following through initially in the wake of the two left-flank companies.
These two (probably breaking into the Japanese administrative area) had advanced quickly against fairly heavy but less intense resistance than Kirk and Gategood had met. Their success signal shot skyward from the beach at 8.51 a.m. Soon afterwards they turned Northwest for Giropa Point itself with Murray’s flanks closed by the sea on his right and Ivey on his left. Then ensued a struggle for the Giropa Point positions during which Murray and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Logan,71 were both
killed and two of their two platoon commanders, Lieutenants Smith72 and Clarke73 were wounded—Clarke, none the less, taking over the company on Murray’s death. In Ivey’s company Lieutenant Elphinstone,74 his second-in-command, and Lieutenant Silcock,75 a platoon commander, were hit with a number of their men.
While this hot encounter was developing Suthers came through to the coast and then turned South-east to face towards the Simemi mouth, gather in what had been the two right-flank companies and clean up the area down to the creek, helped towards the end of the day by two platoons of the 2/9th under Lieutenants Tippetts and Thomas. There was brave and bloody work: against the strongposts which fringed the beachline, scrub and lawyer vine tangling them thickly round; among the coconuts falling away to the South-east; in the swamps which oozed into the creek. Where the tanks could work the infantry packed them closely, firing Very lights to guide the tank fire and then following that in with grenades and sweeping rushes. Where, in many places, the tanks could not work on the treacherous ground, the foot soldiers winkled out the posts alone. Lieutenant Bowerman76 led the dismounted transport drivers of the 2/12th Battalion in a series of spirited assaults. By the end of the day the attackers had laid bare a network of posts over an area scored by radiating webs of crawl trenches. Some of the defensive positions they found to contain as few as 10 men, more seemed to average about 30, and in one about 70 men lay dead.
By nightfall the position had clarified both on the right and on the left. On the right only disconnected fragments of the defences held out. These were in a pocket contained by 100 to 200 yards of beach running Northwest from the Simemi mouth, the line of the creek, Dobbs and MacNab crowding up from the south, and the line Suthers had established running southward to a point just above the end of the dispersal bays which opened off Old Strip. Farther up the coast the other two companies had made good the line of Giropa Creek except for one strongpost which was holding out at the very mouth. The darkness brought thunder and lightning and rain. Through it scattered Japanese groups and individuals tried to break their way out of the Simemi pocket. One such band came upon Captain Sampson’s77 medical post, laying about them wildly. But Sampson met them undismayed. The Australians, and MacNab’s Americans whose only part in the day so far had been to follow on the rolling up of the defences, killed the fugitives in close, hard-fought clashes in the dark and dripping bush, and shot them down in the lightning flashes.
The attackers were early at work again on the 2nd with two tanks each reporting to the Simemi and Giropa flanks and the 2/9th Battalion clearing the east bank of the Simemi. Most of the day was taken up in brief final encounters. In the late afternoon, after the tale was finally told along the Simemi, the 2/12th gathered at Giropa Point. There, although the last post had been reduced by 9.55 a.m., it had taken the Australians until the afternoon to hunt down the remnants of the defenders. Everywhere the Japanese fought virtually to the last man in the brave tradition they had observed at all points along this coast. On the 1st only 8 men allowed themselves to be taken prisoner and 6 of these were labourers. On the 2nd there was one prisoner.
Arnold himself had vivid personal experience of their fanaticism. He was with the foremost attackers in the last of the fighting along the Simemi. Two Japanese officers of its garrison emerged from the island post (which had been holding out against the 2/9th Battalion since 22nd December) set in one of the feeders to the creek mouth. With no stomach left for useless killing Arnold called to them to surrender, and called again. They gave no sign of understanding or even of hearing. One leisurely turned away. The other washed himself in the brackish water and drank some. Then, quite regardless of the silent watchers, he bowed very low three times into the sun. As he then stood erect and faced the Australians Arnold called “I’ll give you until I count ten to surrender”. With no word the other took a small Japanese flag and tied one end to his upraised sword and held the other end in his left hand so that it covered his breast. And so he faced his enemies still silent. Arnold counted deliberately. As he reached “Nine” the Japanese shouted in a loud, clear voice “Out!” Then the Australians riddled him. The other they found hanging by the neck, dead.
In this fighting the 2/12th Battalion lost 12 officers and 179 men (the larger part of them on ground across which less than half that number of the 2/10th had been started on the 29th). These casualties brought the total losses in the three 18th Brigade battalions to 55 officers and 808 men for the period 18th December to 2nd January inclusive—about 45 per cent of the numbers with which the units had first arrived on the Buna coast, although these numbers had been augmented during the sixteen days by the arrival of some reinforcements and the return of original members of the battalions.78 It was a heavy cost by any standards, particularly so by those of bush warfare.
The Australians had, however, been fighting strong, well-entrenched and well-armed foes. It will be recalled that, after his arrival on 17th November with the III Battalion of the 229th Regiment, Colonel Yamamoto had disposed in the whole Buna area probably a little over 2,500 men; that, of these, Captain Yasuda deployed about 500 marines and probably several hundred other men (mainly construction
troops) round the Buna Government Station–Triangle–Buna village area. Of the balance of the force Yamamoto sited more than 1,000 (including the fresh infantry) in Duropa Plantation, at Cape Endaiadere, and along the edge of New Strip, while, at the bridge between the strips and round the southern end of Old Strip, odds and ends of various army units were dug in with a strength of several hundred.
When, therefore, the 2/9th Battalion attacked on 18th December it is possible that they fronted up to twice their numbers, and the Japanese were in very strong and well prepared defensive positions. When Yamamoto was forced to yield to the pressure of their amazing feat of arms, he pulled his men back by degrees across the shallow mouth of the creek and across the bridge between the strips, having been holding firmly at the bridge for some time. He was then determined to prevent any crossing of the shallows at the creek mouth and commanded them from an island set there and from the western bank. Although it is not known how many men remained to him after he had made the crossing it seems likely that he still had a substantial part of his force intact. With these, he manned the defences which had been prepared on and about the Old Strip—a warren of trenches and bunkers, with several lines of bunkers across the strip, extending in one case to Simemi Creek on the right and in another to the swamp on the left; with bunkers in the dispersal bays above the strip, in the area below the strip, on the strip itself and in the coconut grove off its western end.
Integrated with these defences Yamamoto had machine-guns and mortars, at least two 75-mm mountain guns, two 37-mm guns, several 25-mm pom-poms mounted dual and triple at the far end of the strip. About three-quarters of the way up the strip, and about 200 yards to the south, he had in position several 3-inch naval guns. To the north of the strip he had another 3-inch gun.
Despite the formidable nature of their defences, however, the Japanese forces east of Giropa Point were almost completely destroyed. Nine hundred were known to have been buried there and, as always, there were uncounted dead whose numbers could only be guessed at. With this destruction, though at a woeful cost in brave men’s lives, the first period of the 18th Brigade’s operations on the coast ended on 2nd January. Meanwhile the Americans of Urbana Force had been fighting to clear the area on the western side of Giropa Creek.