Chapter 18: Wau
WHILE the campaign in the Owen Stanleys was waxing and waning during the period from July to November 1942; the threat to Milne
Bay was mounting and being destroyed in August and September; the fighting in Papua was drawn to its dreary close among the swamps of the Buna–Gona coast during the last of 1942 and the first month of 1943; then, during all that time, the small band of guerrillas which was Kanga Force was hanging close about the Japanese in the Wau–Salamaua–Lae area.
It has been told how the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, after the Japanese landed at Salamaua and Lae in March 1942, established themselves in the bush about the Japanese positions and, in late May, were absorbed into Kanga Force after the arrival at Wau of Lieut-Colonel Fleay, the 2/5th Independent Company and the lesser elements of the force; how the first phase of the Kanga Force operations ended with the arrival of a strong Japanese group at Mubo on 31st August; and how, anticipating that these Japanese would continue from Mubo to Wau, the Kanga Force men laid waste the Bulolo Valley and moved their centre to Kudjeru at the beginning of the Bulldog Track.
After Lieutenant Wylie with a small band of commandos and New Guinea Riflemen passed the last of the Mubo garrison coming down the track on 1st September he advanced warily until his men had the Japanese at Mubo under close observation. Three uneventful weeks then passed and it became clear that it was not the immediate intention of the Japanese to press on to Wau. Thus Fleay had been precipitate in devastating the Bulolo Valley.
The considerations which led up to this decision were based initially on the judgment that the Japanese were concentrating strength at Busama. The situation was exacerbated by reports of landings of men, supplies and vehicles at Salamaua itself and of troop movements in the vicinity of Lokanu. After the event it became clear that these reports were exaggerated. Fleay’s concern, however, was natural enough and was increased by advice from New Guinea Force that he could expect no early reinforcement. His crowning difficulty then was that both Captain Winning and Captain Minchin were absent from Mubo as the Japanese approached it and had left only about thirty men there astride what had become the line of the main Japanese approach. Fleay was conscious of the fact that he could impose only limited delay at Mubo. He estimated that Japanese, to a strength of about 1,000, could enter Mubo during the late daylight of the 30th or during the night 30th–31st and be at Kaisenik some 24 hours later. So his orders for the “scorching” of the valley went out—at 3 p.m. on the 30th. But the occupation of Mubo did not take place until about the same time next day. And as for the estimate that the Japanese
could reach Kaisenik within 24 hours of taking Mubo—an assessment of a hard two-day march for burdened troops expecting ambush or attack would have been more realistic. We know now that Wau was not then the Japanese objective. Their move to Mubo was part of their plan to threaten the Australians in concert with the main landings on the Buna–Gona coast and to place at Mubo the most forward defences of their Lae–Salamaua bases. But Fleay could not know this at the time and his decision, though premature in execution, was understandable. Had the Japanese advanced nothing could have excused an Australian failure to “scorch”.
Initially, however, the consequences were not only the destruction of the facilities and installations in the Bulolo Valley but general confusion
and uncertainty among the Australians. For some little time after his move began Fleay was out of touch with New Guinea Force, which was puzzled by his silence and by reports from aircraft crews (who had been sent to Wau with supplies) that the aerodrome there had been made unusable and the township gutted by fire. After contact was regained on 2nd September, however, order began to develop once more. The following day 140 Papuan carriers arrived at Kudjeru with food. Twelve planeloads of stores were dropped on the 4th and 5th. Gradually the disordered accumulation of stores at Crystal Creek was sorted out and the usable portions carried back to Blake’s, Winima and Kudjeru. Supply-dropping at Wampit for the men at the Markham end of the area was organised. A special effort on the Bulldog Track resulted in about 50 boy-loads daily coming into Kudjeru that way by 15th September. About that date Fleay was able to report that the ration position was “most satisfactory”.
Though the Australians were as unaggressive as the Japanese during this period Lieut-General Rowell was not impatient, for he reported to Australia on the 20th:
Work is proceeding slowly on the Bulldog Track and it is now possible to move small sub-units through gradually. Supply can be assured either by sea and river, or by air droppings. Kanga Force is performing a valuable task in that it is engaging the attention of a considerable enemy force and is ensuring a flow of valuable information.
Two days later, however, it looked as though action might be looming once more in the Kanga Force area. On the 23rd the most forward Australians—at Guadagasal—were forced back. They pushed out again next day, however, and by nightfall were once more in their former position as a standing patrol; more uneventful days followed.
It will be recalled that a small detachment of the 2/5th Independent Company and a few individuals from the NGVR were still at Sheldon’s, on the south bank of the Markham River, when the main body of Kanga Force evacuated the Bulolo Valley. In the quiet which followed the Mubo incident these men settled down to routine patrolling across the river and towards Lae. They found that the Japanese were not venturing much beyond their perimeter post at Heath’s Plantation, that the natives were losing their fear of being caught fraternising with the Australians and were willing to talk to them and even to supply them with carriers. This encouraged the guerrillas to send a small harassing patrol down the river as far as Heath’s. On the night of 12th–13th September this patrol laid booby traps across a well-used track near Heath’s. A Japanese party blundered into it early the next afternoon. The alarmed garrison then opened blindly with their field gun and beat the bush with rifle and machine-gun fire. The guerrillas quietly withdrew unharmed. After that, however, there were few highlights for the Australians along the Markham. They kept touch with the natives (notably through the work of Sergeants Emery and Booth of the NGVR and 2/5th respectively) and kept
track of the main Japanese movements. But these movements were neither bold nor extensive.
Back at Mubo the Australians decided to break the peace that seemed to have descended. In the early morning darkness of 1st October Captain Winning led a band nearly 60 strong against the main Japanese camp at Mubo. With him went Fleay “as a rifleman”. Winning’s intention was to approach the stronghold by way of an old overgrown trail but he could not find it in the darkness. The raiders therefore followed a track which led into Mubo from the South-west by way of high ground known as Mat Mat Hill. Lieutenant Drysdale, who was leading, was, however, wounded by a booby trap. The defenders were aroused. Another booby trap gave urgency to the initial alarm. Japanese poured out to meet the attack. Winning’s men, heavily outnumbered, fell back carrying the dying Drysdale and two other wounded men. Sergeant O’Neill, already recognised as a skilful scout and daring leader, with two other soldiers covered part of the withdrawal by holding a track along which the Japanese threatened to outflank the retreating Australians. It was said later that 16 Japanese suddenly appeared in front of O’Neill; that he met them with such a volume of accurate sub-machine-gun fire that he killed all 16. But the main party was broken up during its withdrawal and small groups were rejoining the parent body for some days afterwards. (Fleay himself and a soldier formed one such group.) When reports from all of these were finally checked the Australians estimated that they had caused some 50 casualties among the Japanese.
Corporal Kinsey watched Winning’s ill-fated attack from a perch in a high tree only some 700 yards from Mubo, where he and Rifleman Leather1 had been manning a lookout for some time. Later, in the Japanese camp, they observed a slow-moving sequel to the attack.
We watched a procession of 100 men (said Kinsey later) carrying a corpse from the headquarters building to the South-west corner of the ‘drome where they prepared a log base and much firewood and had a burial service with men in three platoons in U shape round the spot. The body was put on the logs, a pile of wood put on it and the pile set fire to. Later we found that this body was the OC of the Mubo company.
Some days later, after the scattered raiders had been drawn together again, this remarkable scout and his friend Leather set out for Salamaua. Winning had asked them to try to get into one of the old observation posts. They carried 14 days’ rations with them. Well before the main track reached Mubo they plunged into the mountain and bush forsaking all tracks. Up and down tangled mountains they went as they headed due north. They watched the Japanese from the old No. 2 Lookout, questioned the natives, satisfied themselves that there were not many more than about 1,000 Japanese in the vicinity of Salamaua, absorbed a most detailed picture (day-to-day movements by the garrison, numbers, shipping, gun
sites) and left again after five days. Kinsey said later: “I didn’t stay longer because I was coughing and was afraid this would give me away.”
Meanwhile the long-awaited reinforcements had reached Kanga Force. On 4th October Major MacAdie2 arrived at Port Moresby with some 290 all ranks in his 2/7th Independent Company. MacAdie was 23 years old at this time, only two years out of Duntroon and fresh from an instructor’s post at the Guerrilla Warfare School. He was well over 6 feet tall, thin and strangely hawk-like, with curiously flecked eyes set deep above a high-bridged nose. The company flew to Wau on the 8th and 9th and came under Fleay’s command. At the same time New Guinea Force re-defined Fleay’s instructions, ordering him to continue to harass the enemy in the Mubo–Salamaua–Lae area with the objects of reporting their activities and holding the aerodromes in the Bulolo Valley. Fleay accordingly spread the bulk of his two companies from Kudjeru through the Bulolo Valley and up the mountains towards Mubo with the Markham Valley detachment still operating from Sheldon’s. MacAdie, believing that his unit was not properly efficient despite the fact that it was considered to have completed its training, drove his men hard. He flung them wide on patrols both as an operational and training necessity, developed intensive weapon training programs and stressed the need for sound training in basic infantry techniques. From the beginning he recognised the particular value of Intelligence in the type of operations for which Independent Companies were designed, increased the strength of his Intelligence Section from two (the authorised number) to six and modified the standard Intelligence training to lay less emphasis on orthodox map reading (finding the standard maps insufficient in number and inadequate in quality) and develop bush-craft. At the same time, after the devastation of the valley in late August, he found himself with a large reconstruction program on his hands. His energetic engineer officer, Lieutenant Sheridan,3 worked his section hard. They rebuilt hangars and workshops, restored power and lighting to the Wau Valley after 14 days’ hard work on the Mount Kaindi Power House, improved tracks and roads, in twelve days rebridged the Bulolo near Bulwa with a 146-foot-span suspension bridge which had a normal load capacity of 10 tons and a safe overload capacity of 15 tons, rebuilt the Kulolo suspension bridge across the Bulolo giving it a 90-foot span and a 5 tons’ capacity, and carried out various other building tasks with thoroughness and speed.
With the emphasis on rebuilding and patrolling November and December passed quietly enough for the men of Kanga Force. Evidently neither Blamey nor Herring was pushing them into any very active offence, possibly having no desire to sting the Japanese into retaliation in New Guinea while the Papuan battle was still being so bitterly contested, and certainly wishing to avoid having to divert from the main front in any extraordinary
effort aircraft and other sorely needed means of supply. Thus, on 12th November, Fleay was reminded that his main role was a watching one. He was to hold the Bulolo Valley airfields, and was told specifically that his men on the Markham should undertake only limited reconnaissance north of the river and should avoid detection by the Japanese. Although his supply to the Kudjeru–Wau area was assured (particularly as far as Wau was concerned, through the Wau airfield which had once more been opened) the men on the Markham were only precariously maintained. The picture which Captain Stout,4 medical officer of the 2/5th, had painted on 11th October when he was in charge of the hospital at Bobs, remained fairly constant throughout the rest of their period there.
The general health of the troops in this area is rapidly deteriorating due to an inadequate diet ... not only inadequate but unbalanced, and the constant tinned meat is resulting in a high percentage of ... gastritis and diarrhoea. They are developing a [distaste for] tinned foods generally, and many of them cannot stomach tinned meat and simply “go without”. ... Troops are becoming desperately short of shirts, shorts, etc. Clothes become saturated with sweat and dirt each day; an inability to change into clean, dry clothes is causing an epidemic of contagious skin troubles. In spite of the above inconveniences and discomforts morale is generally good.
In the Mubo region Winning had established his most forward point near the Saddle, just forward of Guadagasal, where the track dipped between two long spurs approaching it from either side and the area between the Buisaval River on the east and the Bitoi on the west was narrowest and fell precipitously away to the river on either side for 1,000 feet or more. He kept his patrols always busy among the hills and gorges between the Saddle and Mubo itself. They scoured the adjacent tracks, booby-trapped those most favoured by the invaders, and set up observation posts from which they overlooked the Japanese movements in the main Mubo camps. Mostly these posts were manned by NGVR men, true to the tradition they themselves had established: Archie Graham,5 Albert Pauley, Bruce Fraser6 and Geoff White7 were there (with O’Neill of the Independent Company) overlooking Mubo for many weeks. The natives knew where they were but were loyal to them. The Japanese knew they were about. White cockatoos would fly round them sometimes when they moved. Then the tree-top watchers would see the Japanese pointing towards their positions. But the Japanese never found them. They slept soundly at nights. They cooked their food under cover of the night fogs, and kept water beside them in bamboos. They were calm, brave and always watchful.
At one time in early December it seemed to the Kanga Force men that they had so irritated the Japanese that the latter might be preparing to move forward from Mubo. But the portents faded and the Australians
themselves then prepared to strike a hard blow in the most ambitious military operation planned for the Wau–Salamaua–Lae area up to that time. It would involve the use of more than 300 troops and about 400 native carriers. The supply, organisation and control of carriers would be arranged, as usual, by the Angau men in the area—Major Penglase, recently returned from Madang; Captain Niall, in charge at Wau; Warrant-Officers Watson,8 and White,9 with the forward troops. Penglase, knowing both the area and the natives extremely well, warned Fleay that there was no guarantee that the natives would remain fast under fire, but Fleay asserted, “They’ll have to stay”. Fleay’s intention was to destroy as many Japanese as possible and, if the encounter developed favourably, to take and hold Mubo. MacAdie would command the attack, with Winning as his second-in-command, and they would muster all available troops of both Independent Companies. The plan provided for the seizure and maximum use of the boldest features surrounding the Mubo gorge. MacAdie himself, with 60 officers and men, was to seize Vickers Ridge which dominated the eastern side of the gorge, dropping 1,000 feet in half a mile and falling sharply then to the river bed over its next 500 feet. Captain Finch10 with 40 all ranks was to take and hold the kunda bridge which crossed the Bitoi to link Vickers Ridge with Mubo. Captain Bowen11 and Lieutenant Wylie, with some 80 all ranks from both companies, were to retain the Saddle as an extricating position. Winning’s tasks centred on the high ground on the western side of the gorge. He himself was to take 100 of his own officers and men (with Warrant-Officer White of Angau and 162 carriers) to Mat Mat Hill which overlooked Mubo by 1,000 feet from the South-west. Lieutenants Ridley12 and Leitch would lead another band of 2/5th men, 50 strong, northward from Mat Mat Hill to Observation Hill which thrust steeply down towards Mubo airstrip from the north. The actual attack was to begin at 9.30 a.m. on 11th January.
MacAdie brought his company forward from Wau (except for one platoon which was already at Skindewai) and linked with Winning’s company on the 8th. Soon afterwards he and his men moved out towards their forming-up place high on the Buisaval Track above Vickers Ridge, which they reached on the evening of the 10th. Below them they watched the unsuspecting Japanese going about their normal duties and looked Northwest across the basin to the crest of Mat Mat Hill. Winning’s men were, however, having difficulty in reaching their positions there. Their leader had wanted more time than the two days allotted to him to get them into position but, the schedule remaining unaltered, had to drive
his men into a searing march and climb of 10 hours and a half on each of those two days. Even so they could not keep to the start-time, which they were to signal themselves with a long burst from their one Vickers gun. The morning of the 11th, after a night of drenching rain, brought swirling fog. This was fortunate for Winning as his weary men were still scrambling into their positions when the attack should have been opening, struggling to get their 3-inch mortar and Vickers gun into positions which were still unreconnoitred (the reconnaissance party having been held up by the flooded Bitoi) and which, when occupied at last, were found to be shut in by the bush.
Meanwhile MacAdie’s men above Vickers Ridge had breakfasted on hot coffee and food which Watson and his natives had brought down from a supply point not far to the rear. After that they moved to their previously reconnoitred attack positions and were settled there by 8.30 a.m. They watched a long Japanese carrier line come into the enemy camp from the direction of Komiatum, heard the sudden roar of aeroplane motors among the misty mountains and saw two Allied bombers sweep suddenly over the Japanese. They saw the Japanese scatter wildly for slit trenches. They waited in vain for some time for the signal from Mat Mat Hill and their wireless failed to bring them into touch with the labouring parties there. But the long Vickers burst at last broke out—at 1.20 p.m. Almost at the same time plunging fire from MacAdie’s men struck into the completely surprised Japanese on Garrison Hill below them. The Australians claimed 20 or 30 for their first bursts. They saw Winning’s mortar bombs explode off the target and in their own area but, just at the right time, found wireless touch with him, and from their own grandstand seats, directed the mortar fire. Whenever the Japanese broke cover their machine-gunners got fairly among them.
But on the other side of the gorge difficulties continued to dog Winning. His own party found themselves committed to an advance down a razor edge seldom more than 8 feet wide at the top, rocky, overgrown, falling away so steeply at the sides that only the actual profile was negotiable. While Winning himself fought the mortar and Vickers gun, Lieutenant Kerr was looking after the actual movement, but the country defeated him As the afternoon dragged on, the weariness of his men (they were weak from being too long on tinned food), the inimical terrain, and the well-placed Japanese kept his men out of the fight.
Meanwhile more success had attended Ridley’s thrust at Observation Hill. After the general firing started he burst out of the thick growth near his objective and got right among the Japanese gun positions. His men killed the Japanese who tried to stop them and swept on down the slope towards Garrison Hill. Their advance brought them, however, into danger from MacAdie’s fire and so they pulled back some distance up the hill. There they remained, effectively engaged by sniping fire which killed Leitch, until Winning, preparing to get his own party out of their trouble, recalled them.
When Winning and Ridley went MacAdie was uncertain as to their future plans. He decided, therefore, to hold his positions on Vickers Ridge and the Saddle (Finch having rejoined him during the afternoon as apparently no action was threatening in the kunda bridge area). His men lay quiet during the wet night and the next morning, until they saw their enemies going about their normal occasions in the obvious belief that the Australians had all gone. Then they opened sudden and effective fire. As the morning went on they shot at whatever targets were offering and, in their turn, were vigorously engaged by the Japanese. Night found them miserable beneath more rain, mortar bombs bursting among them. But they were plaguing the Japanese again in the early daylight hours of the
13th. About 11.30 a.m. they counted 126 fresh troops approaching Mubo from Komiatum. As these came straight on down the valley the Australian fire cut numbers of them down. MacAdie, however, was still uncertain whether the attack from Mat Mat Hill was to be renewed. The only instructions he had were to “withdraw to the Saddle if in danger”. He therefore sent Finch back to the Saddle for more definite orders. By this time too he was worried particularly about his right flank which was most vulnerable, and during the afternoon he sent Captain Lowe13 and Sergeant Jubb14 to reconnoitre that area. Lowe returned about 5, shot through the back, with the news that a band of about 100 were outflanking the Australians round their right and others were closing in from lower down the slope. One of the latter had wounded Lowe and killed Jubb. MacAdie then gave Lowe’s platoon to Lieutenant Lade15 and sent them off to intercept the outflankers. Afterwards, with Lade covering them, the rest of the group began a steady movement uphill towards the Lababia Track. By that time it was dark. It was raining again. The uphill slope was steep and muddy as the hungry men dragged their gear up with them. On the track at the top they formed a defensive position and without food or definite orders waited for the next dawn. After it came they patrolled to find the Japanese and bring in the gear they had been unable to carry the previous night. Then Finch returned with orders to retire to the Saddle. They did this. The main body regrouped (Lade was still out) and nightfall found MacAdie busily organising the defences. He knew that there were strong forces out after him by this time and he waited for the counter-thrust which he felt sure would come.
It came late on the 16th and fell first on Captain Bowen’s platoon in the most forward position along the main track. Bowen himself was killed and the attackers pressed so close in the early darkness to Lieutenant McKenzie’s16 section (who were credited with killing eighteen in their first burst) that in places only a few yards separated attackers and defenders. After the attack died down the Australians “stood to” in their positions throughout the night and were closely engaged again next morning by (they estimated) about 350. As the attack pressed more and more heavily (with McKenzie bearing the brunt) the Australians began to fall back in a well-controlled movement and nightfall found them comfortably settled at House Banana. There MacAdie found Major Jones,17 commander of “B” Company of the 2/6th Battalion, who told him that his company was farther back along the trail and would reach Skindewai next day. They were the most forward troops of the 17th Brigade which had begun
flying into Wau three days before. The Kanga Force period of guerrilla autonomy was ended.
How well had Fleay’s commandos done their job during almost seven months of independent activity? They had one outstanding success to their credit—the Salamaua raid on 29th June. Apart from that they had done little to harass the Japanese at their Salamaua and Lae bases. By contrast with the Salamaua raid, the attacks on Heath’s, the October attack on Mubo, and even the ambitious January attack on Mubo were not well carried out. The Kanga Force commander was young and inexperienced in command, and few senior officers from New Guinea Force had visited the area to help him. Nor did he have sufficient help on his own headquarters. There he had one officer only—and the supply problem alone was sufficient to tax a separate maintenance staff. The actual operation of supply from Port Moresby was frequently faulty, based as it was on over-much reliance on the Bulldog line without detailed knowledge of the capacity of that line. The result was often a hand-to-mouth existence for the troops who were sometimes more concerned to know where their next meal was coming from than with the discomfiture of their opponents.
The Kanga Force men, however, neglected in the matter of supplies and relief and reinforcements, had posed a constant threat to the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua without provoking these to large-scale retaliation which might well have meant an entry into the Bulolo Valley when the Allies were fully and desperately engaged elsewhere; and which could conceivably have meant a threat to Port Moresby from the north when the eastern flank was being cleared only with the greatest difficulty. Additionally they ensured a flow of valuable information during critical months. They did what they were sent to New Guinea to do.
The troops who were now arriving to augment Kanga Force were infantry veterans of the North African desert and Greece, some of whom had fought also in Crete, others also in Syria. They had arrived at Milne Bay in October. Despite the demand for experienced infantry during the Papuan coastal fighting General Blamey had held them there, partly because that base was still open to threat, partly because he foresaw the possibility of the thrust at Wau which was now developing, partly because he wanted to keep them intact for the retaking of Lae and Salamaua.
The Japanese underscored his prescience with their decision of 4th January to withdraw from Guadalcanal and Papua and build up their Lae–Salamaua garrisons. General Adachi was then quick to get reinforcements under way from Rabaul for Lae. But the Allies had been expecting some such move, warned by the shipping concentrations which had built up at Rabaul-91 vessels, including 21 warships, and some 300,000 tons of merchant shipping on 30th December. Their aircraft picked up the convoy of 10 destroyers and transports off Gasmata (on the south coast of New Britain) on 6th January and broke through the escorting fighter planes. However, despite their best efforts then and next day (which accounted for at least two of the ships and possibly about 50 aircraft for
the loss of 10 Allied planes), the major part of the force landed at Lae on the 7th.
In a letter to Herring on the 8th Blamey referred to these fresh troops:
Whether the intention of this force is to push forward from the Lae and Salamaua area towards Wau remains to be seen. This event has always been present in my mind and I have kept the 17th Brigade AIF intact either to meet this threat or as the spearhead of an advance in this area.
He then outlined his immediate plans for the disposition of his forces in New Guinea, stating that, after the Japanese Sanananda positions had been reduced, the 41st American Division would be sufficient for the defence of the Buna area. He would then withdraw from the Papuan front the 32nd American Division and all the Australian units there and bring two fresh Australian brigades from the mainland. One of the fresh Australian brigades (the 29th) would replace the 17th at Milne Bay.
Next day Blamey warned Brigadier Moten that he was to take over Kanga Force. Although Moten had been commanding the 17th Brigade now for a year he had not yet led a brigade in action. He had taken the 2/27th Battalion away in 1940, had proved himself an able commander in Syria. At this time he was 43 years old, big and well fleshed, with a florid face, a slow and lazy manner, not given to words. Moten flew to Wau on his initial reconnaissance on the 10th and returned to Port Moresby on the 14th to find his written instructions waiting for him He was to take over all troops in the Wau area as from the 15th. The force there would continue to be known as Kanga Force. Its role would be to ensure the security of the Bulolo Valley as an advanced base with aerodrome facilities suitable for future operations which would “be facilitated if the enemy can be induced to believe that Salamaua is a future objective”; to collect and forward information regarding enemy strength, dispositions and movements; to facilitate the operations of coast-watching and air warning stations in the area.
Meanwhile the 17th Brigade had been moving from Milne Bay to Port Moresby. The 2/6th, the first battalion to move, completed its journey by the 13th and got its leading elements away to Wau next day. With them went their commander, Lieut-Colonel Wood,18 and, although the move was hampered by unfavourable weather and an accident to one of the troop-carrying aircraft, nightfall found Wood settling a solid nucleus of his battalion at Wau and the 17th Brigade advanced headquarters functioning there. Next day ten more planes flew in with more of the 2/6th and Wood’s major deployment was prepared. Major Jones was ordered to place his company in a defensive position on the track in the vicinity of Mubo and he set off at once with his reconnaissance party; Captain Dexter,19 ordered to settle his company in a similar position on the Wau–Lae track near Timne, likewise got his reconnaissance quickly under way.
The next week was marked mainly by the build-up at Wau of the 2/6th Battalion. Although, as the earlier fighting had so vividly demonstrated, air transport of men and supplies was the key to mobility and success in New Guinea, and although it was now making possible the rapid reinforcement of the Wau theatre, it was particularly susceptible to the vagaries of the weather. Civil flying in pre-war days had shown that the clouds hanging and twisting over the mountains which hemmed in the Bulolo Valley imposed particular hazards; indeed, sometimes made the passage of aircraft into the valley impossible for days at a time and could shut out the valley or roll back from openings into it at a few minutes’ notice. This was now being demonstrated to the army (and was to be demonstrated even more vividly in the days to come). On 15th January six aircraft (carrying among others Moten and the main part of his headquarters) left Port Moresby for Wau with a fighter escort. All were forced back. The next day only small elements (Moten himself among them) were able to get through and four aircraft were forced back to Moresby. On the 18th ten transport aircraft with their fighter escort were over the town soon after 9 a.m. The third one to come in crashed on the outskirts of the airfield killing 8 of the passengers and crew. All told the planes brought in only 49 men and Moten complained that the emplaning arrangements were uneconomical and haphazard. But the 19th was a more fruitful day and 111 of the 2/6th were safely landed bringing the battalion’s total strength at Wau to 28 officers and 535 men.
By that time the deployment of the battalion was wide and well advanced; Jones had linked with MacAdie and had his company at Skindewai; Captain Sherlock,20 with his “A” Company, had also set out along the Buisaval Track—to base his company on Ballam’s, patrol the Wandumi area and the eastern entrance to the Wau Valley; Dexter had moved to Timne; one platoon had been sent to the Black Cat Mine as a standing patrol on the old mining track which followed the Bitoi River west from Guadagasal through Waipali, north of Buibaining and past House Copper, then ran up the Black Cat Creek, by way of the Black Cat Mine, to the Black Cat Gap where the main mountain skyline dipped slightly and, from the Gap, fell South-west to Wau. So far, however, the Australians had observed no positive indication of the next Japanese move. Herring wrote to Blamey:
We are sending Moten’s second battalion forward to him as soon as air transport can carry it, but I feel that Jap action in the [Guadagasal] Gap area is defensive rather than offensive and there is no need to worry about Kanga at the moment. The raid on Mubo has undoubtedly disturbed him and I feel he fears that it may be a preliminary to an attack on Salamaua similar in strength to those which have defeated him at Buna and Sanananda.
But this complacency was soon to be shattered. On the 20th MacAdie sent Lieutenant Dunshea21 with a patrol towards Buibaining to look for
any signs of Japanese movement in that direction. Next day Dunshea saw 50 Japanese moving past Buibaining along the Black Cat Track and watched another party bathing in the Bitoi River. MacAdie at once intensified his patrolling of this area (sending Lieutenant Lade out with 54 others) and subsequent observations not only confirmed those initially made but also established that larger parties were on the move along the track past Buibaining.
When (on the 22nd) Moten had the news of the first sightings he had a second platoon from the 2/6th warned for movement to the Black Cat Mine. But he cancelled this order next day and sent instead Captain Winning (who had recently returned to Wau leaving only some 55 of his company out with MacAdie) with about 30 of his men. Nevertheless the position was still by no means clear and the precise axis of the Japanese thrust at Wau (if one were coming) was still undefined. But each day’s delay meant that the Australians would be in a stronger position: on the 23rd 31 air transports arrived at Wau bringing additional men of the 2/6th Battalion and more supplies; on the 24th 34 planes brought more stores again, the leading elements of the 2/5th Battalion (some 81 all ranks including the commander, Lieut-Colonel Starr22) and engineers of the 2/8th Field Company.
At this time Moten intended Starr to take over the defence of the Mubo–Wau area while the 2/6th Battalion moved down the valley for the defence of the Bulolo area. Accordingly Starr was early on the move on the 25th along the track to Mubo, approximately half of his party moving behind him and the other half remaining at Wau. But the weather disappointed him on the 26th, no aircraft were able to land and the main body of his battalion was earth-bound at Port Moresby.
By that time the pattern of the Japanese movements and intentions was becoming clearer. On the 24th Winning had indications that the Japanese were on the move in the vicinity of the Black Cat and, next day, reports from a patrol he had out along the track towards House Copper indicated more definitely what he had already begun to suspect—that the invaders were cutting their way along a long-disused track from House Copper South-west to Wandumi. This was roughly parallel with and between the Black Cat Track on the Japanese right as they advanced and the Buisaval Track on their left. It was soon to become known to the Australians as the “Jap Track”. By the 26th Moten felt reasonably sure that this new track had developed as the main axis of the advance. With his main deployment hinged on the Buisaval Track on his right, and a small deployment on the Black Cat Track (which now seemed to offer the best chance of striking at the attackers) he reported that day to Headquarters New Guinea Force that any movement out of Wau would leave him with an insufficient reserve there. However, he decided to take the risk and use the 2/6th Battalion (less Jones’, Sherlock’s and Dexter’s companies) in an aggressive movement through the Black Cat area on
the assumption that his essential reserve would arrive at Wau by the 27th (Herring having promised that he would hasten the concentration of the 2/5th Battalion). This decision involved the temporary abandonment of his plans to move the 2/6th to Bulolo and the cancellation of orders which had already gone out to that effect. On the 26th, therefore, Wood, with two platoons already at the Black Cat, one having followed Winning there, regrouped his main local strength into two companies, one under Captain Gullett23 and one under Captain Stewart,24 and set out along the Black Cat Track next day with 110 native carriers—a steep, slippery climb of about 8 hours for the laden soldiers whose sojourn at Milne Bay had not left them in good condition for mountain work.
At that time Moten’s intention was to destroy all the Japanese between the Black Cat and House Copper. To this end he planned that, having taken Winning’s group into his command, Wood would attack from the Black Cat towards House Copper on the 28th. At the same time Jones, having moved “stealthily” the previous day to the track east of House Copper, would sally towards the Black Cat and fall upon the rear of the Japanese being assailed by Wood, his own rear protected by Lade and his patrol (who had now been in an ambush and watching position near Buibaining since the 22nd) and additional men brought forward by MacAdie blocking the Mubo–House Copper track near Waipali. Sherlock, having previously concentrated his company at Wandumi, would attack up the Jap Track towards House Copper. As a preliminary Winning and Sherlock would scout offensively on the 27th.
On the 27th the main body of the 2/5th Battalion was arriving at Wau. By noon 9 officers and 204 men had landed. Captain Bennett’s25 company set out at once to stage the night at Ballam’s and move on to Skindewai on the 28th, on which day Major Rowan’s26 company would concentrate at Ballam’s. Starr was to take command of all troops on the Buisaval Track from the beginning of the 28th.
Although it looked, therefore, as though the course of events was set fair for the Australians, the energy of the Japanese forestalled the planning. About 10 a.m. on the 27th Sergeant Wild27 of Sherlock’s company, patrolling the Jap Track between Wandumi and Wandumi Trig, clashed with Japanese whom he thought to be setting booby traps. On hearing the exchange of fire Sherlock moved calmly. He was older than the average company officer, a man with a strong sense of duty, a disciplinarian (but one who shared his tobacco with his men), a leader since his schooldays when he had stroked the Geelong Grammar School eight in three successive
years. Now he settled his company (and 2 officers and 20 men of the 2/5th Independent Company) in positions he had prepared on the kunai slopes forward of Wandumi village and waited for more news. Later he sent Lieutenant Kerr of the Independent Company to try to supplement Wild’s report. When Kerr returned later in the afternoon he had little to add except that he had lost one of his men to a sniper. Sherlock then decided to make no further move until the following morning and camped in the village for the night, his men remaining quiet in the face of questing bursts fired blindly by the Japanese. At 4 a.m. on the 28th they were astir in preparation for their move towards House Copper. Ten minutes later, however, the Japanese attacked them and when Sherlock moved them back at 5 a.m. into positions on the track some 300 yards South-west of the village they had lost one killed and 4 wounded. In the new positions Lieutenant St John’s28 9 Platoon, which had already borne the brunt of the attack on the village, was on the right and on them fell the main force of the new attack. St John’s men, however, inspired by their brave leader and Sergeant Gray29 (the latter not only supporting his officer in all his efforts but fearlessly going out under heavy fire to bring Corporal Noble.30 in from a forward slope where he was lying wounded) resisted all the Japanese attempts to oust them during the morning. They still held their ground as the early afternoon wore on.
Meanwhile, about 12.30 p.m., Lieutenant Cameron’s31 platoon of Bennett’s company of the 2/5th Battalion had arrived after a quick movement early that morning down from Ballam’s to Kaisenik and a gruelling forced march from Kaisenik over the scorched kunai ridges. After only a few minutes’ rest Corporal Wilkinson’s32 section moved to support the right front, a second section went to the left front to stiffen there the Independent Company men, and a third section covered the left flank.
Until about 2.30 p.m. the Japanese repeatedly attacked the Australian positions frontally with mortar and machine-gun support. But, as fast as they formed up to charge, cool and well-directed Australian fire broke up the attacks. Then the Japanese changed their tactics. Crawling through the high kunai grass under cover of machine-gun fire they got well among St John’s foremost positions. Sherlock himself, with the survivors from the infiltrated positions, his own headquarters, two or three commandos and Wilkinson’s section, then drove with the bayonet in a demoralising counter-attack, overwhelmed the intruders and restored the positions (the tireless Gray—among others—being hit during this movement). At 6 p.m. the sweating defenders were still holding firm, though they had lost five more men in the later afternoon. By that time their mortar bombs were exhausted and their small-arms ammunition was failing (though engineers from a 2/8th Field Company detachment at Crystal Creek had been bringing ammunition and water forward to them, and carrying out their wounded).
Moten, however, had already reacted, though somewhat tardily, to Sherlock’s reports. Apparently he had discounted Sherlock’s earlier reports of the strength moving in along the Jap Track. But when the intrepid company commander reported by telephone to brigade headquarters about 3 p.m. that he could see “hundreds” of Japanese moving down the track in front of him there could be no further doubt that he was in the direct line of the main Japanese advance. Apparently as a result of that report “C” Company and Headquarters Company elements of the 2/5th Battalion who had landed at Wau only that morning were started out under Major Duffy33 to reinforce the hard-pressed Wandumi force. They came up with Sherlock about evening. Sherlock and Duffy then decided that, since they could not hope to hold the hundreds of Japanese closing in upon them and, in any case, these would flow round any position the Australians took up between Wandumi and the river, they would draw their force back to the river. This movement was already under way when Major Muir,34 Moten’s brigade major, arrived. He informed Moten at once of the position and the latter ordered him to take command of the whole force. Muir then decided to hold on one of the lower features in rear
of the former position. He reasoned that, although the nature of the country (of which sharp kunai-clad ridges falling down towards the river were the main feature) foredoomed either holding or attack forward towards Wandumi to ultimate failure since the Japanese were always commanding the higher ground, the force should try to hold the track until morning at least and give the 2/7th Battalion time to build up at Wau on the 29th. Sherlock and Duffy agreed. But the Japanese were all round them in the darkness and so they felt their way back to a conical-shaped hill below which, in their rear, the ground sloped down to the river. There, with bursts of fire from attackers already spread along the river in their rear breaking spasmodically over them, they waited for the new day. The last message Moten received from them was at 3 a.m. on the 29th. Muir signalled that there were 300-500 troops fronting them; large numbers were moving round their left flank; if Moten decided they should move to the Wau side of the Bulolo they would do so, but otherwise they would hold on. Moten replied that they were to withdraw but they never received the message.
This situation which developed at Wandumi on the 28th was the key not only to the ultimate outcome of the fight for Wau but to immediate events in the closely adjoining sectors—particularly the Black Cat one. At 6.45 a.m. Lieut-Colonel Wood was told by Moten of the Wandumi attack and ordered to send a party down. He instructed Winning to go. Winning set out from the Black Cat Mine at 8.15 a.m. with 4 other officers and 87 men to march to Wandumi by way of a track which struck south from the Gap. Wood estimated that the party should reach Wandumi by noon. But they found the going slow and, near the junction of the track from the Gap with the Jap Track, began to meet opposition. As they swung South-west towards Wandumi pressure on their rear so increased and hampered them that, by 5.15 p.m., they were but three-quarters of a mile below the track junction. By this time communications with Wood had failed. Winning reported later that it seemed to him that the sounds of fighting which had been coming from Wandumi had swung towards the Crystal Creek–Wau area; that he therefore left the track and turned in that direction. And so he arrived at Wau the following day. Meanwhile, spurred by a message in the later afternoon of the increasing seriousness of Sherlock’s plight, Wood had tried (but failed) to get in touch with Winning by runner to hasten him to Sherlock’s aid.
Soon after sending Winning off that morning Wood had sent Stewart out along the track to House Copper to link with Jones advancing from Buibaining. Stewart (his party totalling 5 officers and 99 men) left the mine at 8.45 a.m. and soon found that the well-defined native track from Wau which had held that far deteriorated rapidly. Carpeted with moss it plunged into tall timber which shut out the light and held the damp and made the difficult track drear and depressing. By 1 p.m. Stewart’s three wireless sets had failed. About 4 p.m. heavy rain began to sheet his force and night found his men huddled under kunai shelters with nothing achieved. About noon on the 29th they reached the intersection of the
Black Cat Track and the Jap Track. They then scouted as far as House Copper without incident, lay in ambush for two hours, and then Stewart, having no news of Jones, decided to lead his company down the Jap Track to Wandumi. He saw no Japanese until about 6.30 p.m. when two passed through the bivouac and ambush position he had taken up for the night. He let them go hoping to trap a larger force—but none came. Next morning, in obedience to orders he had received by runner late the
previous evening, he began to retrace his steps up the track, arrived at the junction about 10.30, found that Jones was not there and moved on to House Copper. When there was still no indication of what had happened to Jones, and with his rations very low, he decided to return to the Black Cat area. He and his men, tired, many of them with bad feet and sore legs, arrived back late the following day.
While this was happening Jones was in trouble. He had brought his company to a position on the track about four hours and a half east of House Copper by the evening of the 27th. On the morning of the 28th he began his move onwards but quickly ran into stiff opposition. He lost a number of men, could not progress and, by midday on the 30th, was back at Skindewai, his men tired, footsore and hungry.
While the three groups under Jones, Stewart and Winning thus fruitlessly exhausted themselves (and one of Gullett’s platoons—under Lieutenant Park35—which had been sent on the 29th to hold the Wandumi Trig had been forced out of touch and was not to be heard of again until they arrived at Wau a few days later); while Wood was standing fast
at the Black Cat with the small numbers left to him; and while Sherlock’s men were in straits at Wandumi; it was clear to Moten that Wau was in jeopardy. At 3.35 p.m. on the 28th he signalled Herring:
Enemy attacking in force Wandumi about four hours from Wau. Our company isolated this area. Sending company from Wau to Wandumi to support. No reserve force left in Wau. You must expedite arrival of troops this area.
He was looking now not only for the arrival of the rest of the 2/5th Battalion but also for that of the 2/7th Battalion. But the weather was against him The first flight of planes (4 of 30 which left Port Moresby that morning) had arrived at 9 a.m. with the additional 2/5th Battalion men, most of whom were rushed out to Wandumi during the afternoon. But these were all who did arrive that day as the weather closed in after their landing. Thus, although the balance of the 2/5th were ready to leave Port Moresby, the leading elements of the 2/7th Battalion had been standing by since the night of the 26th and the main unit group was not only waiting at the Port Moresby strips from dawn of the 28th but actually got many men airborne at 8 only to see them flown back again, there was nothing anyone could do to get them to Wau. By the end of the day, therefore, Moten had only scratch groups on the ground at Wau itself and, although Sherlock was still fighting, it was clear not only that it was merely a matter of time for his force but that part of the Japanese drive had flowed round it, for a transport driver reported to Moten at 7 p.m. that he had seen a body of Japanese troops marching down the road to Wau at a point not more than two miles South-east of the aerodrome.
In a desperate effort to get some substance back into his actual Wau defences Moten ordered Starr to bring his two companies in from Ballam’s. They left there in a forced march at 10 p.m., their vanguard arrived in the Crystal Creek area about 4.30 a.m. on the 29th, in the confused darkness actually passing almost unchallenged through the Japanese who were astride the road, and arrived to man the aerodrome defences at 7 a.m.
By that time Japanese small arms and mortar fire from the South-east was falling on the outer defences of the airfield and it continued intermittently until 8.15 a.m. But by 9.15 Australian reinforcements had begun to land, heralding a record arrival of 60 planes with 814 troops—the remainder of the 2/5th Battalion (making that unit’s total strength 35 officers and 580 men) and Lieut-Colonel Guinn’s36 2/7th Battalion.37 Moten then disposed closely about the airfield the forces immediately available. As the situation clarified a little during the day he ordered Guinn to send Major Walker38 with his company in a sortie out along the road towards Crystal Creek. Walker (“Luger Joe” to his men), a brave and resourceful young leader, came sharply against the Japanese in the vicinity of Leahy’s Farm (South-east of the airfield), killed about 15 of them, he estimated, for the loss of four of his own men, and settled for the night facing the enemy, Rowan’s company of the 2/5th to his immediate and right rear, Captain Pringle’s39 company of the 2/7th backing Rowan and holding the Big Wau Creek crossing. More of Guinn’s battalion packed the eastern end of the airfield in the native hospital area with the balance of the battalion (Captain Edney’s40 company) holding the North-eastern approaches. Men of the 2/5th Battalion held the Northwest and western approaches.
Except for sporadic rifle shooting and bursts of machine-gun fire the night was uneventful. In the dark hours before the dawn of the 30th, however, the Japanese made their bid for the airfield. At 4 a.m. they fell heavily upon Walker’s positions fronting Leahy’s Farm. Though part of the company was able to hold fast Walker himself and some of his men were forced back and to the right on to Rowan’s position. In the darkness Walker’s group were about to assail the 2/5th company with the bayonet before they realised that they were friends. Soon afterwards Pringle’s company at the Big Wau crossing were fiercely set upon by Japanese advancing along the road. Those of Walker’s company, however, who had remained in their original positions, were flailing at these Japanese from their rear, Rowan and the group with Walker himself assailed them from their left flank, and Pringle’s men met them with calculated fire which took a heavy toll. Then, when the attackers tried to work round Pringle’s left,
fire from the band which Winning had led down from the Black Cat (in his fruitless attempt to help Sherlock at Wandumi) cut deeply into them. Meanwhile Edney set out to patrol the line of the Big Wau Creek preparatory to moving southward by way of the racecourse and joining Walker’s left flank, but a brief movement brought him against hard fighting Japanese who stopped him among coffee trees. While he was thus held Walker had reorganised his company, and, only lightly opposed, was firm again in his original positions by 10 a.m.
As the morning advanced some of the fog of battle cleared and Moten planned to capitalise the advantage he now felt was his. His position was strengthened by new arrivals during the morning—most importantly a section (two guns) of the 2/1st Field Regiment. Captain Wise41 landed his gunners at 9.15 a.m. with Japanese fire falling among the big aircraft as they rolled to a standstill. Some rifle shots fell among the gunners as they unloaded their stores and prepared to deploy. Wise was told at once that he was in support of the 2/7th Battalion’s operations, was put in touch with Guinn, to whom Moten had given the striking role leaving Starr responsible for the actual aerodrome defences, and then went forward to Walker’s positions to establish his observation post. Already the reconnaissance for the gun position was going ahead and the 25-pounders themselves were being assembled at the airfield. By 11.30 a.m. they had got their first round away.
At 2 p.m. Moten, at Guinn’s headquarters, gave the battalion commander his orders for the advance. Guinn then allotted Pringle the key task of capturing the high ground on Walker’s right, almost due west of Leahy’s Farm, and commanding the proposed axis of advance. Immediately upon the completion of this task Walker was to push up the spur, strongly held and covered, which rose just ahead and to his right. The artillery and mortars would support him. Edney, relieved of his responsibility in the coffee plantation, was to hold the crossing of the Big Wau Creek in Pringle’s place.
About 4.15 p.m. Pringle set his men to their task. Ahead of them the high feature rose, the slopes of black earth leading up it made treacherous by rain and commanded by a hot fire which struck into the attacking Australians as they worked their way up towards the bush-covered crest with the aid of vines and shrubs by which they swung and tufts of grass round which their seeking hands closed. At 4.50, the dash of Pringle’s men had placed the objective within their grasp, but Walker, beginning his movement up the spur which fronted him, was being chopped at by a medium machine-gun above him and heavy fire from light machine-guns and tree-top riflemen. Just then 300-400 Japanese appeared along the road which led from Leahy’s Farm. They seemed unaware of the presence of Walker’s men until they were a mere 200 yards from them. The Australians then poured their fire into them and Wise brought his shells crashing fairly among them with such effect that there was suddenly a
major burst at the farm as a shell set off a supply of explosives. The ground rocked, a great cloud of billowing smoke rose, and many Japanese were killed. Wise wrote later:
... approx 400 Japs advanced in “column of lumps” along the road right in front of me ... and I had a field day with them.
A few minutes later Australian Beaufighters swept low with a whispering roar, gunning the confused Japanese into greater confusion. None the less those on the spur fronting Walker held their positions and stopped the Australians with sweeping machine-gun fire. Pringle’s men, from their vantage points, were prevented by the thick scrub from bringing effective supporting fire to bear and so the night came with the intractable Japanese positions marked as artillery targets for the following day.
At Wau itself the 31st was a day of extensive patrolling and small clashes resulting in little change in the relative positions of the opposing forces. More fresh Australians flew in. Among them were Captain Hay42 returning to the 2/6th Battalion with 100 reinforcements for his unit and Major Warfe43 (an original officer of the 2/6th Battalion) with his 2/3rd Independent Company. Wade, a builder in civil life who had found soldiering much to his liking, was a hard, able and energetic officer who killed his King’s enemies with a cold-blooded purpose and apparently no regrets. He had been commanding this company since September after
its return from garrison service in New Caledonia. There was news from New Guinea Force that two composite companies formed from 21st and 25th Brigade carrier platoon personnel, each 172 all ranks strong and consisting of 3 rifle platoons and 2 medium machine-gun platoons, would begin to arrive at Wau next day. They were to be used for the close defence of the aerodrome and Wau township and were not to be employed offensively outside that area.
Just after dark Muir, St John and 26 survivors of the Wandumi fighting arrived back in the Australian positions. Although their arrival had been preceded by that of other and smaller parties from Wandumi, Muir was able to give a fuller account of the events there than any received up to that time. He related how the Japanese made a very strong attack with up to 500 troops from the direction of the village on the early morning of the 29th and, at the same time, pushed hard from the direction of the river. It was clear to the Australians that they would not only be overwhelmed at any moment but could serve no further useful purpose by staying where they were. They therefore broke their way through the bush on the right flank (where there seemed to be the fewest enemy) and made for the Bulolo River just above its junction with Crystal Creek. There they found a single log bridge spanning the river and crossed it safely though they knew the Japanese had seen them. They decided then to try to circle the Japanese positions by following the creek’s course up into the hills and so make their way back to Wau. But soon afterwards disaster overtook them. As they were crossing the creek the watching Japanese cut into them with machine-gun fire, killed the gallant Sherlock and wounded several others (including St John), cut Muir and his party off from Duffy and the rest, and thereafter harassed the fugitives with patrols and dogs. Then, hungry and harried, carrying their wounded with them, Muir and his men finally got back to Wau. Others of the Wandumi force returned much later, among them Duffy and a few of the 2/5th Battalion men who did not arrive until 4th February. It seemed that the 2/6th Battalion troops had sustained most of the casualties and a final tally placed their losses at one officer and 4 men killed, one and 14 wounded, 2 men missing.
So nightfall of the 31st found the garrison at Wau in strong positions and good heart with every hope that the crisis had passed. Out in the hills there was no development of great moment although movement was taking place there. The commandos and the 2/6th Battalion company along the Buisaval Track were watchful but not threatened. In the Black Cat area Stewart’s patrol had just returned in a state bordering on exhaustion but others had struck out into the region of the Japanese advance. At 10.15 a.m. Captain Gullett, stocky, dynamic and brave, took 37 men out towards the junction of the track from the Gap with the Jap Track. They settled in ambush about half a mile on the Gap side of the junction but were too weak to attack the much stronger Japanese forces which were in the vicinity. Wood, who had received orders from Moten in the early afternoon to prepare the Gap positions as a base from which parties
approximately 50 strong could harass the Japanese lines of communication, signalled that he would attack the junction forces when Winning and the company with him arrived back.
The comparative quiet for the 2/7th Battalion continued on 1st February after a fairly undisturbed night. During the day Pringle beat off a vacillating attack without loss; Walker’s men edged up the remainder of the high ground immediately fronting them; Edney’s company (now without their commander who had been missing since a patrol clash on the previous day and was soon to come in wounded) patrolling towards the Bulolo, found their movement checked in its early stages by a well dug-in position which they estimated to be manned by about 50 men; Warfe (having sustained his first losses in the darkness of the preceding night when two of his men were killed) set his whole company patrolling the area between the Bulolo River and Wau Creek. This they did without incident until, in the last of the daylight, they came against Japanese positions (some of which Edney’s men had already tested) in a thick copse about half a mile North-North-east of the junction of the Big and Little Wau Creeks. They dropped mortar bombs into these and then returned to the Wau defences for the night where both supplies and strength had built up further during the day. Fifty-three transports landed a total payload of 26,612 pounds, including a company of the 7th Machine-Gun Battalion and 50 reinforcements for the 17th Brigade. That day the strength of Kanga Force totalled 201 officers and 2,965 men.
With the dawn of the 2nd the 2/7th patrols were on the move. On the right flank Pringle’s patrol ran into sharp opposition and, when he sent another platoon to help, the fighting flared high with the Japanese, from well-dug and well-concealed positions, pouring a hot fire from machine-guns and grenades into the Australians This lasted well into the day and cost Pringle one killed and 2 officers and 7 men wounded. When the fighting died down to a tense quiet only a few yards separated the opposing positions. During this period Pringle, having lost all his officers, owed much to the steadfast support of his Company Sergeant Major, Doran,44 and to the tireless and cheerful bravery of Corporal “Stumpy” Carter45 who formed his link with the foremost sections, wriggling beneath the fire which constantly swept over the ground which he crossed and re-crossed.
While this was going on Major Muir led over a flight of Boston bombers from Port Moresby to indicate to them the main Japanese positions in the Crystal Creek area. Clouds defeated him, however, and his bombers transferred their attention effectively to the Buisaval Track. There supply aircraft had preceded them, dropping rations to MacAdie and his men, a fairly successful venture which followed several failures of the days immediately preceding.
On this same day Warfe’s commandos had been trying to clear the copse where the opposition had manifested itself the previous day. After
an artillery bombardment Captain Russell46 (with Captain Tancred47 attached) led his platoon into the copse. When they came under telling medium and light machine-gun, rifle and mortar fire, Russell, taking Tancred, Lieutenant Lewin48 and four sub-machine-gunners with him, went scouting ahead. They killed several Japanese who tried to bar them but, in pressing further ahead, Russell and one of the men were killed. Tancred then held with one section and ordered Lieutenant Cobb49 and his men forward on the right flank. Cobb was struck down and, dying, ordered Corporal Brown50 who was beside him “Carry on Corporal! Keep going forward.” But Tancred judged the opposition too strong, waited for the coming darkness and then withdrew his men.
Before dawn on the 3rd Major Nelson51 (who had taken over Edney’s company after the latter was wounded on the 1st) led his men to their forming-up position for an attack through Leahy’s Farm to the high feature beyond, known as Bare Knoll. After an artillery and mortar barrage they began their advance at 8 a.m., Lieutenant McDonald52 (“Meggsie”—much
loved for his bright and buoyant personality), with a platoon from Walker’s company covering their right flank from a high feature (McDonald’s Knoll) just South-west of Leahy’s Farm. By 10 a.m., having taken the Japanese by surprise, they were digging in on Bare Knoll. For McDonald’s men on their right the day was uneventful until the afternoon when three of their number, returning with water from the stream which ran below them, were surprised by a concealed Japanese party and two of them were shot down. McDonald brought one in but, returning for the other under heavy machine-gun fire, was himself killed. The remainder of his platoon hotly engaged the enemy pocket. Walker himself, coming to assist them, was wounded by one of the Australians’ own booby traps but continued on to direct the action, and the encounter concluded with the death of 13 Japanese. But the day was marred for the Australians by their losses of McDonald’s men, the two brave officers, and five men from Pringle’s company who, patrolling to link with Walker’s company, were wounded by the booby traps the latter had set. The casualties in that difficult country, however, threw into relief the bravery of the battalion stretcher bearers. Their work, wrote the battalion diarist, during
“C” Company’s clash of yesterday and during today’s action is typical of their conduct all through the action. They have won the admiration of all ranks and their NCO, Sergeant “Lofty” Vaughan,53 is liked by all. His unchanging good nature can be expressed always in his cheery greeting of “Hello mate”. Whatever the work—fatigue, ration party, or stretcher bearing—his magnificent strength and big heart are always ready to help and encourage his men and those in the companies.
Although the Japanese were still fighting hard in this main sector they were obviously weakening. But that they still retained plenty of vigour was being attested elsewhere—in the copse area, along the Buisaval Track and in the vicinity of the Black Cat. At 9.30 a.m. on the 3rd Warfe assembled to reduce the first-named. Behind falling shells he put Lieutenants Lewin’s and Barnett’s54 and Corporal Brown’s sections into the attack with Lieutenant Hortin’s55 medium machine-gun section in a defensive role. Barnett’s men shot and grenaded their way into the copse against increasingly hot machine-gun fire until Barnett himself was wounded with several of his men, including Corporal Parker,56 and two of his men were killed. The main body then withdrew about 100 yards and reorganised under Lieutenant Lamb.57 But they left Parker lying before a stubborn machine-gun position. Sergeant Littler58 then moved in alone to help him. He was bringing Parker out under heavy fire when he was hit himself. Despite that
he continued his efforts to help the other wounded man, and later both were rescued. Meanwhile Brown linked with Lamb’s right under heavy fire. Warfe himself then examined the situation and later set Brown’s men at the main Japanese positions with Lamb trying to cover them with fire. They broke through the first line of opposition but then they (and Lamb’s section) were sheeted with fire which they estimated to be coming from two medium and seven light machine-guns, thickened by rifle fire and grenades. With darkness coming on and the Japanese pressing in Warfe withdrew his men to their defensive positions at the compound, having lost two killed and four wounded. Among the wounded was Lance-Corporal Las Gourgues,59 already marked by his dashing bravery, who leaped into a Japanese weapon pit in the closing stages of the attack although he was badly wounded in the chest, seized the machine-gun which was there, turned it against its owners and, when told to withdraw, brought the machine-gun out with him and then collapsed.
Warfe was, however, in a strong position for a further attack. By this time he had detailed information of the Japanese dispositions in the copse. At 2.45 p.m. next day the 25-pounders, medium machine-guns and 3-inch mortars began to drench the copse with explosions and fire. At 3 o’clock Warfe’s men moved into the attack in perfectly controlled formation. The main groups of the defenders withdrew before them—acting on the warning provided by the barrage—although those who remained shot down ten of Warfe’s men before the commandos fired their success signal into the air at 4 o’clock to indicate that the copse had been cleared. Twenty-five Japanese were killed.
Out along the Buisaval Track during these days food threatened to become almost a greater problem to MacAdie than the Japanese. On the 30th he had decided to put all troops on a reduced ration scale with the prospect even then that his rations would be exhausted by 2nd February. He told his men at Ballam’s to catch any mules they could and use them to bring food from Kudjeru. That same day 26 mules became available to carry stores to the Summit but even they could do little to ease the situation because of the difficult nature of the country and the wide deployment of the force which then had 25 all ranks at Ballam’s, 202 at Skindewai, 42 between Skindewai and Guadagasal and 92 in the Buibaining and Waipali areas. Next day a test supply aircraft circled the Australians’ positions but made no droppings. Meanwhile Lade, near Buibaining, was warned that the Japanese were believed to be withdrawing and to attack them when the opportunity offered. On the 1st MacAdie reinforced him with a section bringing his strength to 90 all ranks and 21 native carriers. That same day Lade reported that he had located several Japanese posts manned by an estimated 20 to 30 men. He would attack these on the 2nd. As he was preparing to get under way on that day, however, the Japanese moved in on one of his parties. Although the result was no more than a skirmish it determined MacAdie to reinforce Lade’s positions with Jones’
company. But soon he revised his plans on an estimation that there were at least 250 Japanese in the Buibaining area, that a direct attack on them would be too expensive, that his whole force was required to concentrate on the main task of holding the Skindewai–Mubo track, that he had insufficient carriers to supply a large force in the Buibaining–Waipali area, and that the evacuation of wounded from that region was impossible. On the 5th, therefore, he withdrew Lade and Jones to Skindewai and replaced them with 47 all ranks from “A” Platoon.
Round the Black Cat positions there had been more action. On the 1st Gullett reported that he had had a quiet night but that the Japanese were concentrated on a ridge south of the Jap Track Junction. On the morning of the 2nd his watchful men who were forward along the Jap Track ambushed and killed eight big, well-built Japanese. Meanwhile Winning (who had arrived back from Wau the previous afternoon) had moved with some 60 infantry and commandos to a position near the junction, his task being to hold it while Gullett, with 40 of his own men and Lieutenant Blezard60 commanding a 2/5th Independent Company group and a few 2/6th Battalion men, deployed to take the Japanese from the Northeast. As there were no suitable observation posts, the whole movement was preceded by blind and (as was later discovered) largely ineffective fire from two mortars. Winning had a brisk set-to near the junction and Gullett’s group launched themselves upon the Japanese at about 3 p.m. Blezard and two men were killed, three others were wounded, but Winning’s encounter and Gullett’s attack between them probably accounted for 50-60 Japanese. Then, with night coming on, the Australians withdrew towards the Gap, leaving two ambush parties in positions beside the track, estimating that there were 200-300 Japanese between the Jap Track Junction and Wandumi.
On the 3rd, Wood had his men again early astir. His plan was that, after air attacks, the mortars would deluge the main Japanese positions and, after that again, two attacking groups would thrust in—one under Winning and one (Gullett’s company) under Captain Laver.61 Shortly after 8 o’clock Captain Hay (then adjutant) was out on the Jap Track putting strips in position as indicators to the aircraft and preparing Very signals. A little later a scouting Wirraway was over. It was back again at 1.20 p.m. circling, and the forward troops fired flares to indicate their positions. The soldiers knew that the pilot had seen their signals because they picked up his reports on one of their wireless sets. He was back again at 2.39, machine-gunning as he came and leading in Beaufighters which attacked the Japanese with cannon and machine-gun fire. Only two of the aircraft, however, appeared to be near the target. When the airmen ceased firing at 2.55 the mortars got into action and Laver and Winning edged closer to their objectives, ready to go in when the mortars stopped. Once again
Winning was to hold the Jap Track Junction; Laver was to take the Japanese positions south of the junction and exploit forward to the Wandumi Trig. But Winning was set upon in the vicinity of the junction, though Laver got well south of it, some confusion developed and both groups broke off the track into the bush and subsequently made their way to Wau having lost 7 men killed, 2 wounded and 4 missing. (Wood was critical of the conduct of the 2/5th Independent Company troops on this occasion and, keeping only eight, sent the remainder to Wau to rest.)
The 4th was a comparatively quiet day in the Black Cat area. The gunners at Wau shelled the Japanese positions and, with the night, the mortars harassed the Japanese. On the 5th Wood signalled Moten that he had a new plan. He proposed to cut a new track east to the Jap Track above the junction, from a position a little more than half-way along the track from the Gap to the junction, and use this as an approach for his attackers. But, in the later afternoon, Moten told him to do no more than patrol and rest next day in preparation for an attack on the main enemy positions on the 7th in the wake of artillery and air assaults. In readiness for this Wood reorganised his force into three companies (Laver having returned on the afternoon of the 5th) each of an approximate strength of 40 with Stewart, Gullett and Laver commanding. The proposed new track was cut and became known as Gullett’s Track. Its junction with the Jap Track was called Gullett’s Junction.
Before these latest developments out at the Black Cat it was quite clear that the critical period at Wau itself had passed. Late on the 3rd Moten signalled Lieut-General Sir Iven Mackay (who had temporarily relieved Herring in command of New Guinea Force at 9 a.m. on 30th January) that he considered the Wau aerodrome to be now secure. He said that, when the companies formed from the 21st and 25th Brigade carrier platoons arrived, he would be able to release for offensive operations the 2/5th Battalion, the machine-gun company and that part of the 2/7th Battalion he had not yet committed. The carrier companies landed on the 4th and he was thus free to reorganise his attack on the Japanese remaining in the valley. That day all three forward companies of the 2/7th Battalion were engaged in minor affrays, Nelson’s men burnt the buildings at Leahy’s Farm to remove cover which the Japanese might use, but the only major change in the dispositions was the relief of Pringle’s tired men by “D” Company Headquarters (Captain Smith62) and Lieutenant Thomas63 platoon. The carrier companies took over the aerodrome defence role completely from the 2/5th Battalion and Starr was preparing to set Bennett’s and Captain MacFarlane’s64 companies moving up the west bank of the Bulolo River.
A quiet night followed. The 5th was another day of small patrol clashes for the 2/7th Battalion marred, however, by the loss of two brave men
from Thomas’ platoon. Sergeant Ciddor65 took a patrol westward to try to get in touch with Lieutenant McIntosh66 who, with an improvised group of Headquarters Company men (Mac Force), for some days had been occupying and patrolling from a position far out on the Australian right flank. When Ciddor met a small enemy party he himself killed two of them but was in turn mortally wounded. Corporal Robinson,67 trying to cover his withdrawal, was shot down in his turn. Later, in the early darkness, the Japanese launched a small but vigorous foray on McDonald’s Knoll. They tangled with the Australian booby traps, however, and these and a willing fire threw them into confusion and killed a number of them.
The 6th was marked for the Australians by painful losses. With the new day a youthful NCO, Sergeant Birrell,68 took a patrol forward of McDonald’s Knoll to the ground over which the Japanese had sallied the previous night. He found Japanese dead there, litter and signs that wounded had been dragged away. He also found Japanese there who were still full of fight. His patrol killed four of them but he himself was mortally hit and one of his men was wounded. Farther out to the right there were also other Japanese whose spirit was still high. Early in the morning the Intelligence officer had gone out to McIntosh’s positions with detailed
instructions for a patrol McIntosh was to carry out behind the Japanese front. After the patrol had left the Mac Force base an air raid began. Then, as though at a signal, a strong band of Japanese rose from the thick country, moved in on the base, and laid out an air strip. Sergeant Lang69 shot two of the men who were busy with the strip and that precipitated “an encounter of ferocity not yet equalled in the fighting” as the Australians fell upon the intruders with such determination that they took from them a medium and two light machine-guns. But even in that grimly fighting group Sergeants Lang and Hall70 and McIntosh himself were outstanding. At the conclusion of the action, however, the brave young officer lay dead with three of his men, and six others were wounded.
The air raid which formed part of the background for this savage and isolated fight was spectacular. About 10.30 a.m. nine Japanese bombers escorted by about 20 fighters appeared over Wau. Four Douglas transports were unloading on the field, five others were making their approach and the Allied fighter umbrella was up. Bombs began to fall and a furious dog-fight ensued. A Wirraway was destroyed on the ground and one stick of bombs fell fairly along the strip. Although they did comparatively little material damage they caused a number of casualties of whom three were killed in the Air Cooperation Signals but which received a direct hit. But the score was more than evened in the air where the fight waxed furious over the township itself and then swung off down the Bulolo Valley and out over the mountains. In their final tally the Allied airmen estimated that, for the loss of the Wirraway and one Douglas missing, 3 bombers and 15 fighters were shot down. Of these the 156th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, two troops of which had arrived at Wau on 1st February, was officially credited with 2 Zeros and one bomber. Out along the Black Cat Track the 2/6th Battalion had a grandstand view of the fight as they perched above the valley. They saw 3 Japanese fighters and 2 bombers shot down during the dog-fight, watched 2 other aircraft crash into the surrounding hills as they limped for home.
The Australians greatly needed the air superiority which this fight demonstrated. On the actual day of the raid Major-General Berryman told Brig-General Ennis C. Whitehead, commanding the advanced echelon of the Fifth Air Force, that the force at Wau required 23 planes every day or 70 every three days for ordinary daily maintenance and to build up reserves. Whitehead agreed to work on this basis and (two days later), being informed that it seemed likely that the Japanese might attack into the Bulolo Valley from the north, he promised to reconnoitre these approaches and harry any attack from the air. In general, indeed, his support for the Australian operations was so unstinted that Mackay wrote to Blamey on the 4th:
I have found Brigadier-General Whitehead of the USA Air Force extremely cooperative. In fact there is no question of asking for help—he takes the initiative.
After 6th February the 2/7th Battalion entered a period of isolated patrol contacts with Japanese who were withdrawing completely from that front and the further fighting round Wau fell to the lot of the 2/5th Battalion and the 2/3rd Independent Company.
The 2/5th had moved out on the 5th with orders to clear the area south of the Wau creeks and west of the Bulolo River. They met no opposition that day and their leading companies (Captain Bennett’s and Captain MacFarlane’s) bivouacked that night on the west bank of the river northeast of Leahy’s Farm. They did not get much further on the morning of the 6th before they came hard against entrenched Japanese. On the right of their advance Lieutenant Toland’s71 platoon was heading Bennett’s movement astride the road to Crystal Creek. Suddenly machine-gun fire from both sides of the road cut down three of Toland’s men. Bennett, recognising that strong Japanese positions sited in depth along the road and in the dense bush on either side of it would exact a heavy toll of any frontal attack, discussed the position with Colonel Starr who then brought Major Rowan’s company forward to hold the road and sent Bennett’s company wide through the bush to circle the Japanese positions and come in upon them from the south by way of a dominating ridge. Nightfall then found Bennett’s men about 1,000 yards south of Crystal Creek at the end of an afternoon during which their only contact had been with a Japanese patrol of whom they killed one man. Rowan, however, had lost men during his forward movement and MacFarlane’s company (on the left of the road) had run into well camouflaged defences and hot fire to which ten of them fell.
The morning of the 7th found the Australians pressing hard against the Japanese, however. On the right flank the 21-year-old Lieutenant Reeve72 and his platoon headed the movement of Bennett’s company. They burst into a Japanese position on the eastern edge of the high ridge which overlooked Crystal Creek. The startled Japanese had time for only a few scattered shots before Reeve and his men were among them, killing many. The surviving Japanese fled in disorder leaving Reeve’s men in possession of a medium machine-gun, much ammunition and many papers. The Australian platoon then moved westward for about 200 yards, clearing more Japanese posts as they went. Toland’s platoon then came forward to exploit the ridge westwards during the afternoon and they and Reeve’s platoon grimly set about destroying Japanese positions as the afternoon wore on. When they were held later by fierce fire Bennett brought his third platoon forward in an effort to clear the entire ridge before night fell. The Japanese refused to be silenced, however, and darkness came with the Australians in a company perimeter for the night and the last of the Japanese positions on the ridge still holding out.
Equally hard fighting but no such obvious success marked the day for MacFarlane’s company on the left. Though they pressed hard against the
Japanese they could make no significant advance. MacFarlane himself, among others, was wounded during the afternoon and the command then fell to Captain Scott.73
It was little wonder that the Australians were finding the going difficult; it was now becoming apparent that they had come against the Japanese headquarters area and the defences surrounding the junction of the Wau road and the track to Wandumi; the enemy numbers were swelling even as the Australian movement was under way. During the day the 2/7th Battalion reported about 150 Japanese moving east across their positions and these must have joined the defences that night.
Early on the 8th artillery and mortar fire hammered into the Japanese positions. On the right Bennett had given Lieutenant Cameron’s platoon of the 2/5th the task of clearing the western end of the ridge. Cameron’s men circled widely through thick and clinging bush and over rough country to come at the main Japanese positions from below the western edge of the ridge about 11 a.m. Then Cameron himself led the attack in, with his own sub-machine-gun fire and fire from a Bren gunner close beside him cutting down about a dozen Japanese before the rest of the platoon came up with him. Completely nonplussed at being attacked from the steep and densely covered hillside the defenders broke and fled. Some of them rallied, however, and drove back with a short counter-attack which felled several of the Australians before it was repulsed. By midday Bennett’s company was in possession of the whole of the high ridge overlooking Crystal Creek. During the afternoon, from Bennett’s headquarters, the forward observation officer was able to harass with artillery fire Japanese retreating up the track towards Wandumi. At the same time Reeve and his men, with the Japanese machine-gun they had captured the previous day, were firing into their retreating enemies as the latter crossed the Bulolo River below.
Meanwhile, from the other side, Scott’s men had launched a series of spirited attacks on their opponents’ strong positions. Lieutenant Fry’s74 platoon headed their break-through during the afternoon and, as the evening advanced, cleared the vicinity of the road down towards the creek. Scott, holding the remainder of his company west and north of the road, was, however, violently set upon as night was coming and soon twelve more of his men were down just when it seemed that the day’s fighting was ended. Rowan’s company then joined them and together Scott and Rowan settled for the night while Fry’s men joined Bennett.
The morning of the 9th showed many Japanese still in visible retreat along the track to Wandumi harassed by fire from the field gunners and from the infantry’s machine-guns. Scott’s vengeful men cleaned out the Japanese headquarters areas with mortars and grenades and set about a detached pocket of stubborn Japanese with such grim efficiency that they killed 25 or 30 without loss to themselves. Then, with Rowan’s men,
they spent the afternoon mopping up smaller confused remnants. In the last of the day Bennett’s company and one of Rowan’s platoons ranged through to Kaisenik. So the night found the Japanese positions completely reduced, the survivors in full retreat through the hills, dead, wounded and much abandoned equipment scattered in the terrible disorder of defeat. Moten’s headquarters estimated that the 2/5th Battalion men killed 150 Japanese that day and the Crystal Creek area came to be called the “slaughterhouse”, from 250 to 300 Japanese having been killed there.
On that same day Moten re-defined the action to be taken by his troops. The 2/5th Battalion was to clean up as far as Kaisenik then settle one company there, one at Crystal Creek and return the other two to Wau to rest. Emphasis was now to pass to the 2/3rd Independent Company which was to send one platoon at once to a position 1,000 yards west of Wandumi. On the 10th this platoon was to advance through Wandumi and subsequently make its way along the Jap Track to the vicinity of House Copper. A second platoon was to take a carrier line along the Buisaval Track as far as the Summit and, having sent the carriers forward with supplies to MacAdie’s main camp at Skindewai, base itself on the Summit and patrol all the tracks between the Buisaval and Jap Tracks. Warfe was to take, the rest of the company to the Black Cat area and, based there, send out his third platoon to join at House Copper with the one which had advanced through Wandumi. On the 11th one of these platoons was to go forward to link with MacAdie’s men at Waipali. As soon as Warfe was settled at the Black Cat the 2/6th Battalion men were to return to Wau with the exception of Gullett’s company which would remain under Warfe’s command until Warfe knew the ground.
The 2/3rd Independent Company were thus faced with a strenuous task. They had, however, been having a fairly uneventful time since they had cleared the Japanese from the copse by the night of the 4th. On the two following days they mopped up the isolated opposition that remained in the vicinity and then concentrated mainly on patrolling and securing the various crossings of the Bulolo River. After Warfe got his orders from Moten on the 9th he was back with his company at 2.30 p.m. and had Lewin and his platoon on the march by 3.15 to take up the position 1,000 yards west of Wandumi. At 9 a.m. on the 10th Captain Hancock75 started out for the Summit with his platoon and, half an hour later, Warfe, his headquarters and Captain Meares’76 platoon took the track to the Black Cat and reached the Gap about 4 p.m.
He found on arrival there that the 2/6th Battalion elements had been having a busy time since the 5th when they had decided to cut the new path to a point east of the Jap Track Junction. When his patrols reported no contact and no Japanese movement round this junction on the 6th Wood asked Moten to postpone the artillery and air program he had planned to precede the proposed 2/6th attack on the 7th. Wood wanted
to comb the area more thoroughly. Moten agreed. So Gullett’s and Laver’s companies spent the 7th scouring the tracks towards House Copper, down to the Jap Track Junction and below the junction towards Wandumi for some hundreds of yards. They saw no Japanese although they passed through the area of the previous fighting and found it littered with the debris of battle, marked by Japanese graves and Japanese and Australian dead. Wood then proposed to move down the Wandumi Track the following day and attack those of his enemies he might find there. Before he could do so, however, he was ordered to hold his force at the Gap until the situation in the Crystal Creek area, where by that time the 2/5th Battalion was deeply committed, had resolved itself. This he did—except for patrols and ambushes. Six Japanese were waylaid and killed and patrols reported that about 100 of their enemies were dispersed some 600 yards south of the junction. Wood then proposed to have Gullett attack these on the 9th.
On the morning of that day Gullett headed a watchful advance through the junction towards Wandumi. Wood, Hay and the artillery observation officer (Captain Sutton77) followed him. Several messages came from Moten telling of the movement of strong Japanese parties up the track from Wandumi (fugitives from the 2/5th Battalion), air attacks and preparations for more air attacks on these parties. About the middle of the morning Gullett, Laver supporting him from the rear and a platoon holding at the junction, began to meet opposition. He pushed on through it for about 400 yards with Laver combing the track behind him. About 12.30,
however, some 200 Japanese sallied against him from Wandumi and he could not sustain the weight of their attack. He sent Laver back and then began to fall back himself in a well-controlled movement, having lost Lieutenant Park and one man killed, four wounded, and inflicted an estimated twenty to thirty casualties on his attackers. Then he arrived back at the point forward of the junction where Wood had established a temporary headquarters and was waiting with Hay, Sutton and a small party. He sent about half his company back to hold the junction and, with the rest, joined Wood. Chanting and shouting, the Japanese were closing with slow but strong purpose. As they reached an open stretch of the track they were met by withering fire at 30 yards’ range from the concealed Australians and at least 20 fell. The main strength, however, moved methodically round both flanks under cover of light machine-gun and rifle fire. About ten Japanese closed tightly on the left but the Australians killed them with grenades. Some twenty moved boldly down the track but most of them were shot. Pressure on the right flank could not be lifted, however, and a number of Australians were hit including Wood himself and Sutton. Knowing that, by this time, his main group would be well back and firmly based, Wood ordered his men into the bush. Gullett and Hay and six soldiers covered them out and then followed. But the Japanese were in such strength that Wood then considered that the group with him had better make for Wau rather than the Gap. This they did—Wood himself, Gullett, Lieutenant Kemp,78 the badly wounded Sutton, six wounded men and fourteen others. The Japanese, however, apparently had no stomach for fighting off the track. They did not leave it nor did they make any attempt to strike north towards the Gap. So a brisk day ended, the Australians estimating they had inflicted 50-80 casualties on the Japanese at the cost of 1 officer and 3 men killed, 2 and 10 wounded.
During this day’s fighting Private McGuigan79 was wounded about 1 p.m. by a bullet which passed entirely through his upper abdomen. He was reported to have been last seen crawling through the bush. At 5 p.m. Corporal Dowd80 of Captain Quinn’s81 Regimental Aid Post staff and Private Lemmer82 (of the light section of the 2/2nd Field Ambulance assisting Quinn) set out through the darkening bush to find him, with two infantrymen as escorts. They searched well below the Jap Track Junction and, disregarding the danger from the many Japanese in that much fought-over area, called McGuigan’s name again and again through the gloom. They found him at 7 p.m. and carried him then in the darkness for over an hour, on a blanket slung between two rifles. The night and the mountains temporarily defeated them and they camped forward of the junction and far
from the nearest Australian positions. With the following dawn they carried the wounded man for another three hours before native bearers met and relieved them.
This incident was typical of the difficulties of medical work in the mountains round Wau. Quinn would send two medical orderlies with soldiers going into action—or would go himself. Wounded men would be brought back to a central point where they would be given first aid. Native bearers would then carry them to the aid post (normally at the Gap). After treatment there they would be carried to the Bulolo River where an ambulance would be waiting. Quinn wrote:
It would have been impossible to carry on without the native bearers and they cannot be praised too highly.
Apart from battle casualties he found that diarrhoea, bush mites and sheer exhaustion caused most trouble.
Although the main 2/6th Battalion group had made ready on the 10th to move back to Wau as soon as Warfe had taken over, Moten ordered them that evening to remain at the Black Cat until the general situation cleared. Warfe and his men then came under command of Major Norris83 who had taken over when Wood was wounded. They had no news from Lewin who should have been pushing up the track from Wandumi that day in the key movement. On the 11th the Australian patrols quested along the tracks without major incident. At nightfall news of Lewin came. He reported that, moving forward the previous day, his men had killed eighteen Japanese stragglers but then clashed sharply with Japanese positions near the Wandumi Trig. By nightfall he had lost two men killed and three wounded, his wireless was damaged and the operator was dead, his ammunition was running low. He therefore fell back on Wau to replenish his supply, arrived there at 2 p.m. on the 11th and he and his men started back towards Wandumi two hours later. On the 12th they struggled to make their way to the track junction but reported, late in the day, that time, distance and exhaustion were preventing them from attacking the Japanese concentration near the track junction before dark. Next day Captain Meares led his platoon (less one section) towards House Copper while Lieutenant Cameron84 waited in ambush with a 2/6th Battalion group to back Lewin as he approached the track junctions and Warfe, a mixed group of commandos and infantrymen with him, ranged the track. This day, however, also passed without Lewin’s men getting through. Cameron successfully ambushed a large enemy party though his men were then hard pressed in their turn by a strong encircling movement, lost three wounded and were forced back. Warfe was also engaged, estimated that his men killed some twenty of their opponents and then, with night coming on, the Australians left Cameron at Gullett’s Junction with the main forward strength. On the 14th Norris, Warfe and Hay were
out along the Jap Track. In the early afternoon Norris set two platoons at a Japanese machine-gun position. They captured this, then took two other machine-guns, and finally pushed on towards Wandumi, having killed, they thought, at least twenty Japanese for the loss of three wounded. In the late afternoon they met Lewin who reported that his men had also killed some twenty Japanese that day—in the area between Wandumi and the track junction, which was now clear of Japanese.
Early on the 15th the 2/6th Battalion men (except those from the Carrier Platoon) were ordered to report back to Wau. By this time the battalion had lost 4 officers and 48 men of the total losses of 30 and 319 suffered by Kanga Force since its creation. Norris led his men out on the same day, leaving the Black Cat task to the 2/3rd Independent Company. Moten was now in a position to carry out the deployment he had planned when the Japanese attack on Wau had mounted in the second half of January. Colonel Starr was therefore told to assume command of all troops along the track from Crystal Creek to Mubo as from midnight on 14th February. Forward of Crystal Creek he would have two of his own companies and the 2/7th Independent Company. His main tasks were to prevent any penetration from the Mubo area into the Wau Valley, and vigorously to patrol the area to gather information of the country and the opposing forces. The 2/6th Battalion was to become responsible for the Bulolo–Markham River area, to prevent penetration into the Bulolo Valley, to scout for information of the enemy and the country, to act offensively against Japanese patrols moving south of the Markham River. Because of the supply difficulties not more than two companies were to be placed forward of Sunshine without express permission.
So mid-February found the 2/5th Battalion at Crystal Creek and, with the 2/7th Independent Company, forward to the Guadagasal area (with their most active attention concentrated temporarily on developments in the Buibaining area); the 2/6th Battalion (less Dexter’s company which was already down the Bulolo) concentrating at Wau preparatory to taking over the Bulolo task; the 2/7th Battalion settling to road work under the supervision of the 2/8th Field Company, patrolling widely in the Wandumi area and training; the 2/3rd Independent Company operating from the Black Cat. One battery (complete with 8 guns) of the 2/1st Field Regiment had been deployed at Wau from the 9th when the last sub-section had arrived, the second troop having begun to arrive on the 4th. It was the gunners’ intention at this time to try to push two of their guns forward as far as Skindewai from which point they estimated they could shell the Japanese positions at Mubo at extreme range. They thought to experiment first with one gun to try to balance its value to the attacking infantry against the very considerable problem of maintaining it at Skindewai.
The Australians were also at this time trying to extend their antiaircraft cover. They had had two troops of the 156th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery at Wau since 1st February and, on the 9th, sited an additional gun at Bulolo. On the engineer side, as usual, a most formidable and
many-sided task was being attacked. The bulk of the 2/8th Field Company was at work on maintenance and developmental tasks in and around Wau, bridging the Bulolo and the smaller streams which made movement difficult, and developing the road from Wau to Crystal Creek and thence to the Summit. The 2/16th Field Company had moved to Bulolo itself on the 8th and was preparing there the air transport landing strip.
Operationally, it was clear that a new phase was now well under way. With the final reduction of the Crystal Creek positions by the 2/5th Battalion on the 9th the destruction of the Japanese in the Wau Valley was complete. Then began the period of the Japanese withdrawal. And in this period the scene of the greatest Australian activity was the Black Cat area and eastward. In the days following the departure of the main 2/6th Battalion group Warfe had the greater part of Captain Meares’ and Lieutenant Lewin’s platoons feeling their way towards House Copper by way of both the Jap and the Black Cat Tracks. There were bellicose Japanese bands also at large along those trails and ambushes by both sides and small but spirited encounters marked them. From the third platoon, which had the task of patrolling between the Summit and the Jap Track, two sections (Lieutenant Menzies85 and Sergeant Brewer’s86) arrived at the Gap on the 15th and Warfe then ordered them to move east along the Jap Track and follow to the Summit any branch track they might find which would lead them there. On the morning of the 18th Warfe himself, with 15 men, set out along the Jap Track towards House Copper and for some days afterwards was out of touch with his company and hotly engaged at times in fleeting encounters. By the morning of the 23rd the company was considerably extended between Gullett’s Junction and House Copper. Hancock’s platoon (less Menzies’ and Brewer’s sections who, unable to find any alternate way back to the Summit, were being used to advantage in the areas of the most forward Australian activity) had moved from the Summit to Gullett’s Junction; Lieutenant Winterflood87 (in command of Lewin’s platoon since the 19th) was, with one of Meares’ sections, astride the Jap Track about half-way between Gullett’s Junction and the junction of the Black Cat and Jap Tracks (now known as Menzies’ Junction); Meares, with the rest of his platoon and some of Hancock’s men, were at Menzies’ Junction; Warfe and his party were in the vicinity of House Copper.
By this time it was clear that the main Japanese force was concentrated in a heavily timbered valley bordered by the Bitoi River on the north and between Waipali and Buibaining and known to the Australians as the Pisser Valley. On the 20th Warfe’s patrols near Menzies’ Junction had reported one party alone of an estimated strength of some 500 moving past the junction into this valley and the Australians thought then that there were
possibly 1,500 Japanese in the valley. Although the Australian patrols and two or more strafing runs by aircraft each day along the tracks harassed the Japanese withdrawal it remained strong and ordered, and reports indicated a controlled movement daily from the Pisser Valley towards Mubo.
On the 23rd Captain Tancred, who was commanding in Warfe’s absence, was ordered to destroy the Japanese remaining on the Jap Track, establish a secure base at Menzies’ Junction, maintain standing patrols in the House Copper area, organise supplies and communications for a probable forward move on the 26th. These orders were amplified next day, when Tancred was told that, on the 26th, the company was to support an attack from the Australian right flank by the 2/5th Battalion and the 2/7th Independent Company.
Since Starr’s assumption of command there the Australians, feeling that supply difficulties were hampering them, had concentrated on reconnaissance to determine the Japanese dispositions, movements and strengths. By the 18th, however, they were preparing to attack, but then the reports from Warfe’s men of the flow towards the Pisser Valley caused Moten to stay their hands. On the 20th he determined to have Warfe’s men hold firm at Menzies’ Junction, to soften the Japanese by some days’ intensive air strafing of their positions from House Copper to Waipali and then to have Starr attack from the south. On the 23rd, in view of reports of Japanese withdrawals towards Mubo, he asked Starr if he could clean up the Buibaining staging areas on the 24th. Starr replied that he could launch a heavy raid, but the movement of his main forces for that purpose would jeopardise the safety of the track. Finally it was decided that he would attack on the 26th. Warfe’s men would support him by seizing the junction of the Black Cat Track and the branch track to Buibaining. In the event, however, there was virtually no opposition. On the morning of the 26th the air force topped their activity over the preceding days by lashing the Pisser area until 11.35 when heavy mists closed them off. In the wake of the air attacks and mortar fire the attackers moved into the valley but the bulk of the Japanese were gone. By nightfall Starr’s men were in complete command of the valley with the main part of Warfe’s company at the junction of the Buibaining and Black Cat Tracks. There were many well camouflaged huts in the Pisser area, some partially built, and about 50 Japanese dead were counted—most of them obviously victims of the aeroplanes.
During the next two days the Australian patrols ranged as far forward as the Guadagasal Ridge. They found no Japanese. So, by the end of February, it was clear that another phase of the operations round Wau had ended. The Japanese had withdrawn completely to Mubo from which they had prepared and launched their attack on Wau over a month before.
The struggle in the South-West Pacific had continued to draw fresh Japanese forces into New Guinea and the islands to the north of Australia. In the third quarter of 1942 the 2nd and 38th Divisions had been
sent to Rabaul and the 48th to Timor. In December the 6th had arrived in Rabaul and the 5th in Ambon. The XVIII Army on the New Guinea mainland in February included the 51st Division round Lae and the 20th and 41st on the Wewak–Madang coast. Thus from the Solomons in the east to Timor in the west were deployed eight divisions, plus other smaller formations. It had required only 11 divisions to carry out the Japanese offensive of December 1941–May 1942. Counting the four divisions in Burma and one in Sumatra, the equivalent of 14 were now defending the southern and western frontiers of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.
The attack on Wau had been launched with fresh troops brought in specially for that purpose. These were men of the 51st Division, veterans of the Shanghai fighting, who had been garrisoning French Indo-China and been brought down to Rabaul when the Japanese were trying to build up their forces in the South-West Pacific in December and January. It was the first echelon of this division that General Adachi landed at Lae on 7th January as his initial step in building up the Lae–Salamaua garrisons. This first echelon consisted of the 102nd Infantry Regiment Group (Major-General Teru Okabe). In addition to the 102nd Regiment (Colonel Maruoka), Okabe had the II Battalion, 14th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Company 51st Engineer Regiment, 3rd Company 51st Transport Regiment, anti-aircraft, mortar, signals, medical and labour detachments and 144th Regiment reinforcements. The convoy carrying this force was the one to which Blamey had referred in his letter to Herring on 8th January. Although Maruoka’s III Battalion was weakened by losses sustained in the Allied air attacks Okabe’s plans were not seriously jeopardised as a result. Quickly he moved the bulk of his force in small craft across the bay to Salamaua where he assembled them to a strength of almost 4,000. The total Lae–Salamaua garrison then numbered probably about 6,500. On the 19th–20th Okabe cast off a force of about 460 men towards the Mambare with orders to destroy the Allied observation units in the vicinity of Morobe, assist the evacuation of the Buna–Gona coast survivors and establish land-sea communications along the coast from Salamaua to the Mambare.
Meanwhile the 2nd Maizuru SNLF were sharp set by the Australian commandos at Mubo as Okabe’s men began moving into that area. By the time the Australians fell back they had inflicted about 116 casualties on the marines. This decided Maruoka (who had been given the task of taking Wau) on a new stroke. Feeling that the Australians were in a position seriously to harass his movement along the main Buisaval Track he determined to advance by way of the long forgotten track which the Australians later came to call the Jap Track. But although this move surprised the Australians it brought disadvantages to the Japanese. They had not been able to reconnoitre the country forward of Guadagasal, and had no maps. They miscalculated the time it would take them to mount their attack, and so had not laid down supply dumps but moved with each soldier carrying only limited supplies on his back. Nor could
they get their artillery forward along the new track. So, with 2,500-3,000 men moving on Wau, Maruoka needed a quick decision. But this was forbidden him: first, by all the difficulties attendant upon the cutting of the new track; next by the quality of the troops opposed to him; and lastly by the ability of his opponents to apply their air power at the critical moments to augment a garrison which he had underestimated from the beginning, thinking it numbered only about two companies.
Maruoka’s plan was to use both the I and II Battalions (commanded respectively by Major Shimomura and Lieut-Colonel Seki) in a simultaneous attack on Wau. (The truncated III Battalion was probably used in part as a reserve at Mubo and in part for the Morobe–Mambare River task.) When the attacking force had cleared Wandumi it would divide, with Seki’s battalion forming the right flank and following the Bulolo north to attack Wau from the Northeast, and Shimomura advancing by way of the main Kaisenik–Wau road. Maruoka would establish his own headquarters at Crystal Creek. But this plan did not work smoothly. Seki’s battalion, leading the advance, met Sherlock’s company near Wandumi. Sherlock not only delayed them at a most critical time but inflicted at least 75 casualties on them. Seki himself was among the dead. Then, when the battalion moved forward to their allotted position Northeast of Wau, they fell into considerable confusion, partly as a result of air attacks, partly because the units lost touch with one another, partly because of the vigour with which the Australians met them. At the same time Shimomura’s battalion had been roughly handled and, although some elements of the II Battalion joined them soon after the opening round, the initiative had already been wrenched from them. By the time the Japanese began their withdrawal they not only had been mauled in battle but were in a bad way through lack of food. Hunger, effective harassing artillery fire, strafing aircraft and Australian ambushes, made their retreat a painful ordeal. By the night of the 13th–14th the Australians asserted that they had actually counted 753 Japanese dead and, by the time Maruoka was firm again at Mubo, it is likely that he had lost possibly about 1,200 men killed in battle and numbers more from starvation.
One aspect of both the Japanese methods and their straits was illustrated by a 17th Brigade war diary entry for 12th February:
Among recent PW’s brought in was a Chinese boy of 14, weighing 60 pounds, who had been brutally treated. He had been used by the Japs to carry packs as big as himself across the mountains. When captured and put in the compound he met his father, who was also a prisoner, for the first time since leaving Canton.
Though General Mackay knew that his men had inflicted a painful reverse on the Japanese he was nevertheless convinced that the latter were not yet giving up their hopes of capturing Wau and the Bulolo Valley and that there was stern fighting still to come. On 3rd February he wrote to Blamey that the army forces then in New Guinea were not sufficient to guarantee the performance of the roles allotted to him. Although the 4th
and 15th Infantry Brigades were expected, and their arrival would improve the situation, the margin of safety would still be too small. He noted that the Wau–Bulolo Valley must be held as an advanced base for future operations but that its control by the Japanese was most important to their plans for holding Lae and Salamaua, in which area he estimated there was then a minimum of 7,500 Japanese while the indications were that these would be reinforced overland from Madang or by small craft moving down the coast. He wrote that a division of two brigades with supporting arms was required for the defence of the valley. On 11th February he underlined his warning about the likely Japanese movements by writing that he had persistent reports of Japanese patrols moving down the Ramu and Wampit Valleys with Wau as their objective. After his arrival at Wau on a visit that day he stressed this again to Blamey on the 13th and forecast his plans.
Enemy defeats Guadalcanal and Papua and his anxiety for Lae make another attack on Wau a possibility. Persistent reports from Angau and native agents that enemy is constantly moving troops overland from Madang via Nadzab to Lae with object attacking Wau most probably via Nadzab, Wampit Valley, Bulwa. Estimate enemy strength Lae–Salamaua 8,000, Madang 5,000, Wewak 9,000, with another division arriving. Consider it prudent to forestall enemy by increasing garrison Wau especially as air transport not available last three days owing to weather. Next flying day intend to put in reinforcements to bring Independent Companies up to strength and battalions 17 Brigade to approximately 600 each. After further supplies propose send 39 Battalion in about a week and if situation develops Allen with Advance HQ 11 Division, HQ 30 Brigade and 49 Battalion.88
At this time his infantry strengths in the whole of Papua and New Guinea numbered 11,433 Australians and 8,396 Americans, a total of 19,829. At Port Moresby there was the 11th Division with the 14th and 30th Brigades, 2/6th Independent Company, 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, detachments from the forward Australian units, American elements; in the Milne Bay area (in which was included Wanigela, Porlock Harbour and Goodenough Island) there was the 5th Division with the 7th and 29th Brigades; in the Buna–Gona area there were 5,908 infantrymen of the 41st American Division and some 667 of the 18th Brigade; in the Wau–Bulolo area there were 2,982 infantrymen.
In reply to Mackay’s message of the 13th Blamey signalled a general concurrence. He said that the 4th Brigade would move from Brisbane to Milne Bay on the 16th and 18th thus releasing the 7th Brigade for return to Port Moresby with a view to its employment at Wau if necessary (they were operationally experienced, and the 4th Brigade still unseasoned); the 15th Brigade would embark for Port Moresby when the 4th Brigade’s move was completed. Blamey also suggested that Mackay could have the headquarters of the 3rd Division for use at Wau. Mackay agreed.
On this basis New Guinea Force issued an Operation Instruction on the 19th to provide for the future defence of the Bulolo Valley. It accepted that
as our maintenance is at present entirely dependent on air transport the airfields at Wau and Bulolo, and the road joining them, must be retained. The airfield at Bulwa will be required for future use.
It provided for an increase in the strength of the Wau garrison to constitute it as a two-brigade division (the 3rd) but, since the additional brigade would not be available before 21st March, the 39th Battalion would be flown to Wau to provide a reserve in the meantime. It anticipated another Japanese advance on Wau by way of Nadzab–Bulwa or Mubo or both. It forecast that
by actively threatening the approaches to Salamaua we should be able to conceal our intention in regard to Lae. In view of the strength of enemy positions at Lae we will require to use artillery and if practicable I tanks. To keep the artillery supplied with sufficient ammunition and to move the guns and tanks a road will be required. Steps will ,be taken to reconnoitre a route for a road, a bridge over the Markham and to study the best line of approach for I tanks on the north of the Markham River.
The instruction defined a policy of active, offensive patrolling to keep in touch with the Japanese at all times and to prevent them from moving without the Australians’ knowledge; of controlling no-man’s land; of preparing defences round the airfields and along the approaches to the valley; of developing roads to make quick movement possible. Thirty days’ reserve supplies were to be built up.
At this time one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken by the Australian army was developing. Since the beginning of the New Guinea operations General Blamey’s far-seeing military brain had been aware of the need for an overland supply route across New Guinea from south to north, first to assist in meeting the threat of the Japanese movement down the Northeast coast, and then to supply the forces in the Bulolo and Markham Valleys, and then to facilitate the operations for the recapture of Lae and Salamaua which he was planning well before the end of 1942. The Bulldog–Wau route offered the most feasible chance to meet this need.
By November 1942, reports from surveyors, Lieutenants Fox and Ecclestone, recommended that the most practicable way of driving a road through the difficult country between Bulldog and Kudjeru was along the course of the Eloa River. Blamey accepted this and, in early December, directed that a jeep track be put through from Bulldog to Wau. The project was placed under the direction of Captain Maynes89 of the 2/1st Field Company with Fox responsible for route location and construction. The Japanese threat to Wau in January emphasised the urgency of the task. On the 12th Blamey wrote to Herring:
In relation to Wau, plans are in hand for the rapid development of the road from Bulldog to Wau. Lieut-Colonel Reinhold90 (Chief Engineer, 11th Division) has proceeded there to take charge. Extra field companies have been allocated and will shortly be available. ... I hope Reinhold will be able to push the road through in about four months as a track road. We will probably find difficulties in mounting a big offensive against Lae in a much shorter time than that, but Reinhold is enthusiastic and I would be glad if you would encourage him to push on with all speed as far as you can.
Reinhold (with Maynes) was already pushing hard and fast into the wild country between Bulldog and Wau, following the carrier pad that ran by way of Centre Camp, Waterdry and Kudjeru. His examination of this route suggested to him that, particularly between Centre Camp and Kudjeru, it tended to fight the natural trend of the country. He felt that construction on that line would be long and difficult. Study of the topography of the country indicated to him that a more feasible route might be North-north-east from Centre Camp by way of the Koluron Mountains to Edie Creek. He therefore arrived at Edie Creek, on the 25th, to study the possible route from that end. He followed a water-race, built before the war
by a miner named Schrater, south to Hidden Valley where, on the 28th, Warrant-Officer Johnson91 of Angau and Ecclestone joined him
On the 29th January (wrote Reinhold afterwards) whilst the battle for Wau was reaching its climax in the valley below, the little party ... pushed out into the uninhabited and unknown Koluron region.
There were 16 New Guinea boys of Johnson’s, six Papuan boys of the CRE, and four New Guinea boys of Ecclestone’s. There was no mapping information available. The general intention was to strike for a saddle east of Mount Koluron, which was known to Johnson, and was afterwards called Johnson Gap. The saddle is approximately 8,000 feet high.
The idea then was to follow the range SSW from Johnson Gap along the eastern flank of the Koluron Mountains, directly to Bulldog. Ecclestone Saddle lies a little more than three miles SSW of Johnson Gap, but the existence of this saddle was unknown to the party until a high spur between it and Johnson Gap had been crossed. Between the two saddles lies the basin that forms part of the headwaters of the Bulolo River. It is steep country, but it was deemed and proved suitable for road construction.
In traversing the country a direct line was taken west of south and obstacles were crossed and not avoided. Ecclestone Saddle, with a height above sea level of about 9,500 feet, is the key to the whole of the route. This point was reached on the 5th February and, in the distance, could be seen the Eloa Valley and a saddle, later known as Fox Saddle, an obvious control point.
The prospects were so promising and time so short that Ecclestone was instructed to arrange the survey of the route from Edie Creek to the saddle that was to bear his name. On the 6th February he and his natives returned to Kaindi for this purpose, and the remainder pushed on into the basin that forms part of the headwaters of the Eloa. The divide had been crossed.92
Reinhold and Johnson reached Bulldog on 11th February still convinced that they were on the right track. Reinhold wrote:
It is almost certain that the country between Ecclestone and Fox Saddles had not been traversed previously by white men, and it was avoided by the Kukukukus, the nomadic race of pigmy cannibals that are found more to the south and southwest. During the journey the natives showed remarkable courage and endurance and, at times, carried heavy loads down cliffs ranging to 1,000 feet in height. The canyon of the Eloa is awe inspiring, about 50 feet in width at the bottom, with towering cliffs on either side and waterfalls jutting out on to the stream. It is a barrier that has to be seen to be believed. The stream was waded and steep detours were made up the precipitous sides to provide portage around waterfalls and rapids.
The natives never let up. The trip was a triumph for the ability of Keith Johnson and his knowledge of natives, and for the dependability of the natives themselves. ... The CRE reported to New Guinea Force at Port Moresby and the Koluron route was recommended and approved for construction.93
Difficult supplementary reconnaissances followed Reinhold’s initial one. Although they were most arduous and threw up fresh problems they confirmed the general feasibility of the route which had been selected and the construction work was driven ahead at a searing pace. The work which Maynes had begun at the Bulldog end on 1st January with a platoon of the 14th Field Company continued, the problem of de-snagging the
Lakekamu below Bulldog was attacked, clearing gangs of natives under Angau supervision got to work between Bulldog and Fox Camp, the 9th Field Company became responsible for construction between Bulldog and Ecclestone Saddle and began work on 25th February; at the other end Johnson set 500 natives clearing the route from Edie Creek to Ecclestone Saddle and, from about 27th February, the 2/16th Field Company became the construction authority for all roadwork in that sector.
In its final form the road was to cover 58 miles from Bulldog to Edie Creek (68 miles to Wau). Its highest point would be 9,847 feet (between Ecclestone Saddle and Johnson Gap). Difficulties attendant upon its construction would range from those of a purely technical nature (e.g. the nature of soils, the bogging of mechanical equipment, great landslides, reduced efficiency to compressors and motors at high altitudes) to problems of supply, accommodation, maintenance and retention of tools, native labour. In respect of the second last Reinhold wrote:
Loss of tools and pilfering were common. Stores, coming into Bulldog, had been opened and pilfered before their arrival. The Kukukuku tribes along the Eloa are born thieves, and they got away with much equipment. Axes and knives particularly attracted them (and, later, explosives) though they were partial to anything metallic or edible. One party came proudly back to the track on one occasion decorated with detonators through their noses.
The native labour problem was always urgent as large numbers of natives were required for clearing and for carrying. Typical of the recurring difficulties was the situation that developed in respect of 1,000 Mount Hagen natives during these early stages of work on the road. These 1,000 were actually assembled on the aerodrome at Mount Hagen to be flown to Wau. But lack of fighter cover for the transport planes led to the abandonment of the move with the result that the road construction was seriously jeopardised at a critical time.
The importance of the development of this road was emphasised by a severe check to the operations out of Wau which developed in the first half of March through the inability of the air forces to maintain supplies to the extent required for a continuation of offensive forward moves. On the 9th General Whitehead wrote to General Mackay:
With two squadrons of 18 operating carrier planes available for movements to the Wau area, weather conditions have been such that only 14.1 loads per day have been carried into the area. Had twice as many aeroplanes been available the average carry would not have been proportionately larger because of the brief periods when operations into the Wau–Bulolo Valley have been possible. During the next six weeks (until approximately April 15th) there should be a slight increase in convective activity in the Wau area and over the ranges. This means that cumulus clouds will build up earlier in the day with moderate to heavy showers on the slopes of the ranges after 12 noon. On the best operating days there will not be more than four or five hours when operations into Wau are possible. It is probable that one or two hours will be the normal period when operations can be carried out. Ballam’s dropping point will be even more difficult to supply. Skindewai will be closed most of the time since between Summit Station and Guadagasal Saddle the mountains are usually covered with mist during this season of year. ... Operations into the Saddle and into Mubo would be more difficult than into Skindewai.
Whitehead was concerned, too, about the strain of providing fighter cover for air transports into Wau. In the final analysis he was forced to recommend that all available troop carriers should be used to build up a reserve of supplies for the force then in thz. Wau–Bulolo area; that no more troops should be moved forward of Ballam’s than could be supplied by ground; that no more troops should be moved to Wau until reserves were built up; that planning for offensive action against Mubo or Salamaua should be based upon the realisation that supply would have to be maintained by sea.
Despite this small local check, however, the larger picture was a bright one for the Allies. They had just struck a heavy blow at Japanese plans for reinforcing the Lae–Salamaua garrisons. On the night 28th February-1st March a convoy of 16 vessels (8 destroyers, 7 transports and the special service vessel Nojima) put out from Rabaul to Lae carrying, mainly, the second echelon of the 51st Division. The Allied commanders were well aware by this time of the general tenor of the Japanese plans for the reinforcement of the New Guinea mainland and, indeed, by deductions from the increase in shipping in Rabaul harbour and other Intelligence sources, had some little time before forecast the departure of a large convoy about this date. They had laid careful plans for interception by their air forces. The weather initially aided the Japanese and, though scouting aircraft picked them up on the 1st, no attack could be pressed home until next day. Then, towards the middle of the morning of 2nd March, a shadowing aircraft sent back news of the convoy’s position off Cape Gloucester and bombers swarmed to the attack over the north coast of New Britain. Although no accurate estimate of the damage could be made then, by nightfall it was clear that an effective blow had been struck at the ships. There were reports of ships “burning and exploding”, “smoking and burning amidships”, “seen to explode”, “in a sinking condition”. Through the night an Australian Catalina shadowed the fleet. On the morning of the 3rd torpedo-carrying Beauforts of the RAAF headed new attacks off the Huon Peninsula. About 10 a.m. the major planned attacks began.
... 13 Beaufighters [RAAF], each armed with four cannons in the nose and six machine-guns in the wings, “went into the target with flights in line astern”. Flying at 500 feet when they came within the reach of anti-aircraft fire, they “then lost height rapidly and using rated power attacked in line abreast at a speed of 220 knots”. Thirteen B-17’s had come into position above to drop their bombs just as the Beaufighters began their sweep. Thirteen B-25’s followed the Beaufighters in for a standard bombing attack from medium altitude. And then came twelve of the 90th’s [Squadron] B-25 C1’s in probably the most successful attack of all. Coming down to 500 feet above the now widely dispersed and rapidly manoeuvring vessels, the new strafers broke formation as each pilot sought his own targets. The forward-firing .50’s beat down opposing AA, and 500-pound bombs struck ship after ship. Out of the thirty-seven bombs dropped, seventeen were claimed as direct hits.94
More missions sallied out from Moresby during the afternoon but, although they had some successes, bad weather over the mountains lessened the planned force of the strikes. Still, the close of the day found
the work done. There remained only the cleaning up by the PT boats which swept out from their base at Tufi that night; by strafing aircraft in succeeding days which gunned from the surface of the sea survivors of the main battle; by the island garrisons in the Trobriands and on Goodenough who hunted down and killed men cast up by the sea.
In this Battle of the Bismarck Sea 12 vessels were lost and only 4 destroyers survived. The Japanese lost about 3,000 men, but about 5,800 men, including the crews of the 4 destroyers, were saved. But, extensive and brilliant as the Allied victory was, its real significance lay in the lesson of air power which it pointed and the virtual denial to the Japanese thereafter of any hope of swiftly building up their bases in the Lae–Salamaua area by sea.
At this time the Australians in the mountains which surrounded Salamaua and Lae were hoping to be able to increase their pressure on the Japanese. On 2nd March Brigadier Moten reiterated the instructions he had already given to his forward troops: that they were to keep close to every movement the Japanese made, with the 2/7th Independent Company carrying out the most forward reconnaissance and the 2/5th Battalion backing them, building defensive positions in the forward areas as secure bases for future offensive operations and preparing additional camping facilities between the Summit and Skindewai. The 2/3rd Independent Company was withdrawn from the Black Cat to press in on the Salamaua area along the line of the Francisco River. The road from Wau to the Summit was being pushed ahead urgently by two companies of the 2/5th Battalion, the major part of the 2/7th Battalion and the 2/8th Field Company. Wau itself was developing rapidly as a base with a special staff to run it as such.
At this same time Mackay relayed to Moten an expression of Blamey’s hopes for a venture against Salamaua:
I would be glad if you would give consideration to the question of inflicting a severe blow upon the enemy in the Salamaua area ... since it may have far-reaching results if successful. On the other hand with the force at your disposal, should you find your initial stages unsuccessful and come up against conditions and arrangements for defence as they were in the Gona–Buna area you should not allow your force to become involved in operations amounting to siege conditions as existed in the area referred to.
Moten thereupon planned an “indirect attack” on Mubo by the 2/5th Battalion, the 2/7th Independent Company and a section of the 1st Australian Mountain Battery which was struggling forward up the track from Wau. They were to occupy strategic high ground round Mubo, by-pass Mubo itself and the Mat Mat area, and by offensive operations along the Japanese lines of communication from Mubo to Komiatum make the main Mubo position untenable as the defenders’ supplies became exhausted. At the same time the 2/3rd Independent Company were to establish supply bases along the tracks which ran east from Bulwa by way of Missim and prepare to act against the Japanese supply line from Bobdubi to Komiatum. The main advance would not begin before the 12th.
These preparations proceeded quietly enough for some days. But there were the inevitable patrol clashes in the mountains and, on the 9th, 26 Japanese bombers escorted by 12-20 fighters raided Wau. They damaged installations, killed 3 and wounded 10 and spread delayed-action bombs which exploded at intervals during the day. This isolated venture was no more than an inconvenience, however. It was the preoccupation of the Allied air with the larger scene and its consequent inability to further his immediate plans which worried Moten. As an aftermath of Whitehead’s recommendations regarding the necessity to curtail land operations out of Wau, Moten decided to hold a general line Guadagasal–Waipali and destroy the Japanese in the Saddle–Vickers Ridge area. Mackay told him he might proceed with his plan provided he did not prejudice his main task of holding the Bulolo Valley, maintained control of the Waipali–Guadagasal area, and did not push his operations beyond the safe limit of maintenance. By the 15th, however, it seemed clear that the Japanese were not disposed vigorously to dispute an edging forward and that day found the Australian forward elements on Lababia Ridge on the right and on Mat Mat Hill on the left. Except for patrol encounters there was no action for the rest of the month. The Australians consolidated and the 31st found them close to the Japanese Mubo positions with one of MacAdie’s platoons firm on Lababia Ridge, his headquarters and a second platoon with a section of machine-guns on Mat Mat Hill, the 2/5th Battalion (temporarily commanded by Major Goble95 since the 24th when Starr relinquished command), less two companies, deployed from the Saddle to Buibaining, two mountain guns and a section of machine-guns in the Saddle, MacAdie’s third platoon at Skindewai and two companies of the 2/5th Battalion working on the road between Ballam’s and Crystal Creek.
The situation was similarly quiet in the other forward areas. Plans for aggressive action by Warfe’s commandos round Salamaua had been modified temporarily. These men had been at work reconnoitring the country and the tracks between Bulwa and the Salamaua–Komiatum region but, in the second half of the month, their main strength was withdrawn to the Bulwa area because of supply difficulties. One platoon was left at Missim to continue the forward reconnaissance and operate observation posts with a view to later occupation of the area by one infantry battalion and an Independent Company. The Independent Company deployment complemented that of the 2/6th Battalion. Colonel Wood (now recovered from his wound and back with his battalion) had this so arranged that, while his main strength was in the Bulolo–Bulwa area, Dexter’s company was still forward at Wampit covering the Markham. One platoon of the 2/5th Independent Company (the company had been resting for some weeks at Edie Creek and training under experienced 17th Brigade officers and NCO’s) had recently joined Wood as the forerunner of the rest of the company and was at Sunshine.
With April there were faint ripples of quickening activity among the Australians. In front of Mubo the 2/7th Battalion (reinforcements and old members returning to the battalion having brought its strength to more than 700) relieved both the 2/5th Battalion (except for Captain Bradley’s96 company), and the 2/7th Independent Company. From the beginning of the 13th Guinn assumed command of all troops at Ballam’s and forward while Lieut-Colonel Conroy,97 now commanding the 2/5th Battalion, became responsible for all troops between Ballam’s and Wau. By the 17th Guinn was firmly settled with Pringle’s company on Vickers Ridge and the Lababia feature, one company in the Saddle area, one in the Mat Mat Hill and one in the Waipali–Buibaining regions. The Vickers guns remained integrated with these dispositions and the two mountain guns were still sited in the Saddle. The use of the mountain guns, however, was limited by the ammunition supply problem. On the 10th Moten had pointed out that the expenditure of 140 rounds a week would keep 150 natives constantly engaged in replenishing supplies. Reserves were to be maintained at 200 rounds per gun, harassing fire and area shoots were forbidden. A total of 50 rounds could be earmarked for definitely located and specified targets but the priority artillery task was purely defensive.
Guinn planned two positive moves. The first was a raid on the villages from the mouth of the Bitoi River south to Nassau Bay. There, on Lababia Island and at the village of Duali, just north of the Bitoi mouth, long-range patrols and native talk had indicated the presence of Japanese. The second was an attack on a precipitous heavily-timbered feature known as Green Hill,98 which was just North-North-east of Mubo in the right-angled bend of the Bitoi as it turned sharply away east-South-east. The capture of Green Hill would facilitate later Australian operations against Observation Hill. The first move had been mooted before the relief of the 2/5th Battalion and Bradley’s company had been left with Guinn to carry it out. They had been busy about their preparations for some time and, at 6 p.m. on the 20th, began their approach march to the coast from the junction of the Bitoi and Buyawim Rivers (due east of Mubo and about 7 miles from the sea). But they ran into Japanese opposition about half a mile from the coast, fell into confusion and withdrew to the Northeast slopes of the Lababia feature where they took up a defensive position for the night 21st–22nd. Guinn then sent Major Nelson out to take command and the company was ordered not to return until they had completed their coastal task. Meanwhile preparations for the attack on Green Hill had been going ahead, Pringle’s company having been given the task, and the 25th April was set as the date for the attack.
During this period Warfe’s commandos were also on the move—out of Salamaua. On the 30th Lieutenant Jeffery,99 who was operating an
observation post close to the point where Flying Officer Vial had established himself in the early days of the Japanese occupation (although Jeffery had not yet been able to locate the actual site of Vial’s post), was told to reconnoitre the Komiatum area in preparation for a platoon raid on what was thought to be the village. The following days saw much activity along the tracks as the commandos reconnoitred widely, built up their base at the Baiune Power House and established staging camps along the track to Missim, increased their forward strength and battled against the problems of supply and communications. Lieutenant Whittaker of Angau was with them acting as their link with the natives.
Early on the morning of the 11th the platoon detailed for the attack set out from Missim for Base 3 (the most forward base and not far in rear of Jeffery’s Observation Post). On the 12th Warfe himself left Missim for Base 3 and, his blood hot at the prospect of the coming encounter, signalled Moten for permission “to bash Bobdubi at the same time as Komiatum”. Moten replied that he was not to “bash” Bobdubi but, after raiding Komiatum, if possible was to move south on to the rear of the Mubo defences. But when, on the evening of the 14th, the raiders broke into the village they had marked as Komiatum, it was only to find that there were no Japanese there. The natives said that the village was called Namling and they (the Komiatum natives) had built it after the Japanese had occupied the original Komiatum which was some 2,000 yards to the South-east, consisted of only two remaining huts and was occupied by about 80 Japanese. Warfe thereupon ordered an attack on the old village. By the early afternoon of the 17th, however, the raiders reported another failure—they had not been able to cut their way through the bush to Komiatum. Warfe then ordered Lieutenant Stephens’100 section to ration at Base 3 and proceed thence via Namling against Komiatum.
Now activity and expectancy mounted higher among the Independent Company men as it became known that they were to attempt a number of heavy strokes against the Japanese. Whittaker arranged for all natives from Bobdubi, Namling and Logui to move back behind Missim—an ambitious plan which demanded much energy and skilful organisation. On the 21st Moten warned Warfe to make firm his base at Missim, advance his plans to move against the Japanese supply lines, on completion of Stephens’ raid get all his men away from the vicinity of the Komiatum Track which strafing aircraft would then sweep. The soldiers reacted with even more vigorous excitement to this promise, and news of success by Stephens was a good omen. He had moved his men to the track near Komiatum on the night 19th–20th and then lay in ambush. But no Japanese walked into the trap. On the night of the 21st–22nd the Australians again lay hidden in the still, dark bush. Five or six Japanese passed through but they let these go, hoping for a bigger bag. They got it shortly before 9 p.m. A line of some 60 Japanese approached. The commandos held their fire until the leading enemy soldier was only about
4 feet from the muzzle of the Bren. Then all their weapons blazed. Many Japanese fell. Later native reports suggested that 20 were killed and about 15 wounded. The Australians suffered no casualties. Stephens then led his men back to Base 3.
Next day Moten signalled Warfe that he was to begin his offensive on the 24th, was to harass any movements down the track towards Mubo so that the 2/7th Battalion attack projected for the 25th would not be disturbed. Warfe then planned to strike simultaneously with “B” and “C” Platoons at the Mubo Track and Bobdubi respectively. And that was the position on the morning of the 23rd April.
This period had been uneventful for the 2/6th Battalion. (On the 14th the old hands recalled that this was the anniversary of the battalion’s embarkation for the Middle East three years before. Of the officers and men who set sail that day only 116 were still with the battalion.) The only major change in dispositions was the relief of Dexter’s company at Wampit by a platoon of the 2/5th Independent Company. The 2/5th’s headquarters and the other two platoons had settled at Partep No. 2 where Captain Gullett drove them hard in training and, as the month progressed, reported well of their progress. On the 21st the leading elements of the 24th Battalion arrived at Bulolo and prepared to relieve the forward troops at Wampit. As more 24th Battalion men came in they would relieve the balance of the 2/5th Independent Company and allow these tired men to return to Australia for a rest after almost a year of continuous service in the forward areas—a notable achievement.
At 8 a.m. on 23rd April the headquarters of the 3rd Division opened at Bulolo and Major-General Savige assumed command of all Allied forces in the Wau–Lae–Markham area. At the same time Kanga Force was dissolved. Thus there passed from the Order of Battle a name which spanned the whole of the most critical year of war in New Guinea. Originally it was linked with the desperate attempt to strike back at the Japanese in the islands by the only form of Allied ground activity which could then be implemented—guerrilla warfare in the mountains. At that time, too, it referred to a very small group of men who, alone in the whole of the South-West Pacific Area, except for those in Timor, were actually facing the Japanese invaders on the ground. From those humble and brave beginnings Kanga Force, as its year drew to a close, identified itself with the adaptation of air power in its most dramatic form to the needs of the army in the field.
While the fighting had been taking place round Wau and forward from Wau the Allied position on the flanks had been strengthening—though not without challenge from the Japanese.
On 12th January Major-General Milford had arrived at Milne Bay with the advance elements of his 5th Division and, by April, had a strong and balanced force of fresh troops including the 4th and 29th Brigades. Sporadic but annoying air raids reminded them, however, that the Japanese were aware of their existence. These might have served also to remind
Milford that the work he was putting in on Goodenough Island had point. Soon after his arrival at Milne Bay he was ordered to carry out an elaborate and well-planned deception scheme to suggest that a brigade group was located on Goodenough (where the actual strength was merely a battalion group). By the end of March the achievement of this plan was completed and an air operational base was under construction on the island to provide for one fighter strip (suitable also for air transports) and one heavy bomber strip. Two radar stations were installed and additional stations were being built at Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands.
Simultaneously some emphasis was moving from Port Moresby (which had its 100th air raid on 23rd January) to the other side of the range. Dobodura was being developed as a major air base and this demanded that the development of Oro Bay as a beach-head keep pace. Wharves were built there, tracks were developed to permit the ferrying to Dobodura by jeeps and native carriers of seaborne supplies. At the same time transport planes rained men and materials down on the airstrips. Since February Dobodura had been used as an advanced staging base for fighter aircraft which would fly in from Port Moresby in the morning and return there at night. By April, however, this extension of fighter range had been made permanent by the actual location at Dobodura of three squadrons.
That these preparations were not passing unnoticed by the Japanese was demonstrated by a series of heavy air raids against the growing installations. The 9th March raid on Wau was the forerunner of a phase of most vigorous Japanese air activity. On the 11th an equally heavy raid on Dobodura caused some casualties and destroyed 3 aircraft on the ground (though Allied fighters claimed 9 of the raiders for the loss of one of their own number). Heavy and effective raids on Oro Bay and Porlock Harbour followed closely. On the 28th about 40 bombers with a strong fighter escort attacked Oro Bay again. Though the interceptors claimed 13 raiders for the loss of 1 fighter, one of the new wharves was shattered, two small ships were sunk and a number of men were killed. On 11th April 45 raiders and 50 defending fighters joined in a furious mêlée over Oro Bay. Though the latter claimed 17 victims they could not prevent devastating hits on a 2,000-ton merchantman, a corvette and a small supply ship in the bay. An even heavier blow was struck at Port Moresby next day (in its 106th raid). Four aircraft were destroyed on the ground, 15 damaged, runways were cratered, a fuel dump at Kila took fire and men were burned to death and killed by the exploding bombs.
During these first months of 1943 there had been movement up the mainland coast. The Papuan Infantry Battalion had been operating detachments from Ioma since before the Japanese first landed in Papua and, farther south, it will be remembered, had made the first contact with the Japanese invaders in July of 1942. After they had played their part in the early fighting round Kokoda they then regrouped round their Ioma base. There they performed a valuable role both in reconnaissance and as killers of Japanese. By early January, however, the battalion was
reduced to 10 Australian officers and NCO’s and 140 native soldiers. Their communications were primitive, their supply difficult and chancy. As 1943 went on it was clear that, reduced as they were, they could be used only as snipers, guides and scouts. So useful were they in this role, however, that, though they were scheduled for relief, this was to be so staged that they would still be in the field by the middle of the year.
After the Sanananda operations came to an end in late January the 41st U.S. Division became responsible for the defence of the Oro Bay–Gona area and took the PIB under their command. Small parties of the Americans then thrust up the coast, leisurely mopping up scattered Japanese with the help of the Papuans. By 22nd February all Japanese had been cleared from the Kumusi to Cape Ward Hunt though parties were still at large from the Mambare north. But after the passage of another month there was evidence that the garrison of the straggler-collecting post which the Japanese had been manning near Morobe was being withdrawn by barge and the 41st Division was ordered to capture and hold Morobe. The twofold purpose of this was to enable a supply staging point to be established to facilitate coastwise supply and relieve the Wau supply line if Salamaua were taken, and to provide a base from which PT boats might operate against the submarine and barge supply lines which had developed within the Huon Gulf. In the event, however, the occupation of Morobe posed no difficulty. At the end of March PIB patrols reported the area clear of Japanese and by early April a combat team of the 162nd Regiment was in possession.
Thus, by April 1943, the Allies firmly held open all the main lines of convergence on the Japanese bases at Salamaua and Lae: up the coast from Morobe; through the mountains between Wau and Salamaua; along the river system between the Bulolo Valley and the Markham.
This month marked also the end of the first year of the formal existence of the South-West Pacific Area, which had begun with the Japanese at the peak of their success and confidence and with corresponding despondency in Australia—a despondency shared in full measure by General MacArthur after his arrival there, the memory of a great defeat dogging him Then came the forward move by the Allies to fight the war in New Guinea, not because MacArthur at once inspired this on his arrival (as he was later to claim) but because the Coral Sea and Midway battles, and the development of airfields and air power, made possible the achievement of conditions which were fundamental to such a move.
It was a year in which Australians alone in the South-West Pacific Area faced the Japanese on land until November 1942; in which those Australians of the AIF whom Mr Churchill would fruitlessly have diverted to Burma drove the Japanese back across the Papuan mountains and from Milne Bay; in which Australians in Papua (and Americans in the Solomon Islands) first checked the great Japanese southward advance; in which it became clear that the Japanese were outstandingly brave and tenacious soldiers—but were doomed to ultimate defeat.
For Australia generally the year, begun in gloom and preceded by the first blows of war ever to fall on the soil of Australia itself, saw the dark threat of isolation and actual invasion disappear. But it saw also the end of an epoch with Australia’s realisation that her strategic destiny lay far outside that of Great Britain, the motherland, and with America, and that her future was dependent upon events in Asia. Perhaps Mr Curtin alone expressed this in words, but the country at large expressed it in its complete acceptance of the revolution which General MacArthur’s assumption of overall military command in Australia represented.
For the Australian Army the year brought bitter lessons as well as great triumphs. The ignorance of New Guinea which prevailed in army circles until the year was well under way resulted in losses of life which could have been avoided, in wasted effort and tactical reverses; the divided army system which placed the militia and the AIF in the field side by side affected the spirit of sections of the army and prevented the achievement of uniform standards of efficiency and a common outlook; the lack of training and discipline in some militia units resulted in unnecessary deaths and inefficiency in battle. On the other hand was an amazingly quick and thorough adaptation to the demands of tropical and bush warfare by individuals and units whose previous experience had been in no way related to this type of operation—an adaptation which was perhaps most marked by the use of air power in association with the Australian Army in completely new ways and on a completely new scale; on the part of staffs who quickly became outstandingly expert in new and involved procedures; on the part of the individual soldier; and by the emergence of superb leadership at all levels throughout the army, by officers (often from the humblest peace-time walks of life) of whom many had been proved in battle under varied circumstances and had forced their way to leadership by their own merit as fighting men.
At the very peak of this leadership development was General Blamey himself. His greatness was demonstrated almost daily by a knowledge unparalleled in Australia of how an army should be formed and put to work; by his exercise of the vital field command at the same time as he kept within his grasp a vastly detailed control of the Australian Army as a whole; by his sagacity and strength in meeting the rapidly changing demands of a difficult political situation; by his ability speedily to encompass the requirements of the new war and plan far ahead of the events of the day as he controlled them; by his generally unappreciated humanity.