Chapter 17: The Battle for Finschhafen
BEFORE he left Port Moresby for Brisbane on the day of the Scarlet Beach landing, General Blamey had directed General Herring to reinforce Finschhafen with the headquarters of the 9th Division and one additional brigade. Herring signalled General Wootten on the same day warning him to be ready for the move and to hand over the Lae area to General Milford as soon as possible. “Further details after conf Adm Barbey 23 Sep,” signalled Herring.
On 23rd September General Chamberlin visited New Guinea Force and discussed the Finschhafen situation with General Berryman. An operation instruction from MacArthur’s headquarters had been issued the previous day, stating that the Finschhafen operation was “to be so conducted as to avoid commitment of amphibious means beyond those allotted”; that is, a boat battalion was to pass to Australian command at Finschhafen on 3rd October for operations north of Finschhafen. According to the instruction, “obligations for over-water supply and air force support will be kept to a minimum”. When Berryman informed Chamberlin of Blamey’s intention to reinforce Windeyer immediately, the American was unable to state what craft of the amphibious force would be available. Thus it was difficult to plan reinforcement and maintenance.
While Berryman and Chamberlin were discussing the problem in Port Moresby, Herring met Barbey aboard soon after Conyngham’s return from the landing beaches. He informed Barbey of Blamey’s order and asked him to move the extra brigade forward. Describing the outcome later, Herring wrote:
Under GHQ directions, Amphforce was bound to move troops to such places as Commander Phosphorus [Blamey] might direct. Commander Amphforce, however, having information that a new order was to be issued by GHQ refused, and said that he would not move an extra brigade without reference to GHQ At this stage also the question of re-supply of 20 Bde at Finschhafen was considered. Before the initial landing, there had been no suggestion that there would be any trouble in this regard. The contrary was rather the case, the Commander Amphforce’s representative assuring GOC I Aust Corps that re-supply would take place after 3 or 4 days had elapsed from the initial landing. The position was further complicated at this stage by the departure of the Commander Amphforce from Buna to Milne Bay and the fact that no officer was left behind within reach of HQ I Aust Corps to represent him with any real authority.1
Barbey declined to transport the extra troops to Finschhafen on the grounds that it was against GHQ’s orders. The new operation instruction placing a restriction on the commitment of amphibious means was read by Barbey and Herring, but Herring was not shown Annex 3 (logistics). He was surprised and upset when he later received his own copy and read Annex 3, which stated that the Allied naval force
will continue to provide over-water transportation of personnel, organisation, equipment materials and supplies to Binocular [Lae] and Diminish [Finschhafen] as required by the Commander Phosphorous.
These orders were clear enough. Soon afterwards, in a letter to Blamey, Berryman wrote:
After you left some difficulty was experienced in getting approval to move more troops into Finschhafen. It appears that a staff officer from GHQ visited Admiral Barbey on 23 September and informed him that GHQ did not wish the Navy to move more troops into Finschhafen. Consequently, Admiral Barbey refused requests from General Herring to move more troops. Relations, according to Comd ANF [Carpender] became somewhat cool and Admiral Barbey sailed from Buna to Milne Bay.2
To Blamey the decisions of the conference of 17th September were clear and he could see little point in waiting until hostile strength had grown beyond that capable of being tackled by the 20th Brigade. But MacArthur’s staff continued to submit that the opposition facing Windeyer was small and that, before any reinforcements were undertaken with the valuable landing craft, “information should be supplied which would indicate the strength of the hostile forces opposing 20 Aust Inf Bde”.3
Having received contradictory instructions it was only natural that Herring and Barbey could not agree on a common course of action. After the departure of MacArthur’s advanced headquarters for Brisbane two days after Blamey’s had left, there was no authority left in New Guinea with power to decide the question. In a report to Blamey, on 20th October, General Mackay, the commander of NGF, wrote:
It was necessary to send signals to LHQ and GHQ with attendant delay. Commander NG Force was given a definite mission, but he was not informed specifically of the transportation means that would be available, with the result that it was not practicable to make and implement a plan. It is considered that GHQ should state definitely the numbers and types of craft that will be available so that the commander charged with the mission will be able to make definite plans.
Blamey himself put his finger on the spot where the trouble began when he wrote to Mackay:
Berryman has told you, of course, that I brought up specifically, at the conference on 17th September at GHQ, Port Moresby, the question of transferring the second brigade of the 9th Division to Finschhafen, and it was agreed that this should be done. Apparently no preparation was made to do so. In conversation with General Herring ... I informed him that this had been agreed to, and naturally he planned on that basis. It appears, however, that this has not been carried out, and of course our difficulties arise largely from this.
Herring informed Mackay on 24th September that he was unable to comply with Blamey’s orders for lack of necessary transport. Early on the 25th Berryman signalled Chamberlin that the troublesome GHQ operation instruction had only allotted a boat battalion to NGF and
not a shore battalion, which would be required for landings “wherever boat battalion used”. He asked for the complete 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, stating that Barbey was agreeable as he felt that the 542nd EBSR would satisfy his needs for the future operations in New Britain.
With Herring, who had flown in from Dobodura, Mackay, Berryman and Admiral Carpender then went to General Kenney’s headquarters for a conference. After examining GHQ’s instruction Carpender and Kenney apparently agreed that Allied naval forces were responsible for the operational movements and necessary air cover required by Herring. The Australians then asked Carpender to provide the transport for headquarters of the 9th Division and one brigade to Scarlet Beach. On the understanding that this transport would be provided, Herring flew back to Dobodura and issued a warning order to Wootten.
On the evening of the 25th Berryman amazed Herring by informing him that Carpender had not yet made any arrangements to reinforce Windeyer, and did not propose to do so until the matter had been referred to GHQ on the grounds that, at the conference with Barbey on 23rd September, Herring had agreed to such a reference. Herring was angry. “I made no such agreement,” he wrote to Mackay, “but made it clear that as Admiral Barbey would not do as I asked so as to enable me to carry out my orders, I would have to refer the matter to higher authority and, if necessary, to GHQ as my orders were definite.”
Carpender’s reply to Mackay’s request, received on the 26th, stated that “transportation of additional troops to Finschhafen will be undertaken in increments by small craft staging out of Lae when Finschhafen area cleared and when my representatives, who will make reconnaissance, determine Finschhafen and Langemak harbours are usable”.
Windeyer’s urgent need was for more troops immediately, not when Finschhafen had fallen. Therefore, as an impasse had developed, Mackay and Berryman, late on the 26th, sent an urgent “most secret” signal to Blamey and repeated it to MacArthur. In Herring’s view this long struggle to obtain shipping should have been made by New Guinea Force, not by him, and this signal should have been sent much earlier.
After six days hard fighting (said the signal) 20 Inf Bde is on a front of 9 miles with a depth of 6 miles. Although successfully launched the operation is far from completed and enemy is resisting in numerous bunker strongholds. Frequent enemy air attacks have made the operations more difficult besides causing casualties. To carry out the mission of capturing Finschhafen and exploiting to Sio at least 60 miles along the coast, HQ 9 Aust Div and second inf bde are required. This was foreseen and ordered by you, and both commanders NGF and I Aust Corps consider it essential this be done earliest possible. ... The question of reinfts and re-supply is now becoming acute and early action to move above forces is urgently required.
The reasons for this discreditable situation were not hard to find. Both the senior commanders, MacArthur and Blamey, had left New Guinea at the time of the Scarlet Beach landing and both liked to keep control in their own hands. There was no one on the spot to solve the problem
quickly, and MacArthur’s planners felt that Finschhafen would be a “pushover” and that the operation could be considered as finished. They could now settle down to working out the “logistics” of future campaigns which would use the landing craft of the naval task force.
Watching the developments in the Finschhafen area with anxiety, and those to the rear with impatience, Wootten on 27th September signalled Herring:
Windeyer again asks for immediate reinforcement strength one bn to protect his beach-head and communications. In view situation last two days recommend div troops and bde group be sent Finschhafen immediately. If not possible then recommend one bn at once.
The reply from Corps was not very hopeful – “GHQ does not approve reinforcement Finschhafen with bde group and div tps.” The reply did state, however, that Carpender had authorised Barbey “to act regarding reinforcement of one bn”. It also stated that Herring would fly to meet Barbey at Milne Bay on the 28th, and that it had been suggested to Barbey that one battalion should embark from Lae on the night of 28th–29th in either one LST or two destroyers.
Along the battlefront on the east coast of the Huon Peninsula the infantry knew nothing of the strife which the question of their reinforcement was causing. On 27th September they were still engaged against stubborn resistance across the Bumi and along the Sattelberg Road. Even though their plans for the 26th had been dislocated by the aggressive action of Main’s and Pike’s companies of the 2/17th, the enemy was again active. Telephone lines to Jivevaneng and Zag were cut, and one of Main’s patrols made contact with a Japanese patrol between Jivevaneng and Sattelberg. With a troop of artillery at his disposal, Main arranged for harassing fire on Sattelberg and along the track. Soon after dusk a platoon of screaming Japanese, blowing whistles and shouting “Tojo”, rushed at the Jivevaneng defences. Six of them were killed, one on the defenders’ parapets.
In the main battle area Brigadier Windeyer had the choice of pressing on where Major Handley of the 2/13th was held up or attacking through the area gained by the 2/15th. He decided on the latter course and issued orders accordingly: the 2/13th Battalion was to pass through Captain Snell’s and Captain Stuart’s companies and to capture the Kakakog area. At the same time as Colonel Colvin gathered his forces for the attack, Captain Angus’ company (one of the two companies of the 2/15th still at Kamloa) moved up to guard the Bumi crossing, thus releasing all the 2/13th for the main attack. Handley’s company would be responsible for right flank protection. From about 9.30 a.m. on the 27th the remainder of the 2/13th Battalion moved across through the 2/15th’s position with Cooper’s company leading and getting ready to reconnoitre Kakakog.
An hour earlier Sergeant Chowne,4 the mortar sergeant, led a patrol which penetrated as far as Handley’s company had reached in its attack
the previous afternoon. With telephone line trailing behind him, Chowne crawled ahead to the edge of the bamboo where he could observe the Japanese position twenty yards ahead. Although he was so close to the enemy, he then directed 3-inch mortar fire on to them; he had only 15 bombs and had to be very economical. Seeing no enemy movement, Chowne returned and informed Handley that it would be possible for a platoon to attack the position.
Guided by Chowne, one platoon, led by Sergeant McVey,5 advanced to the edge of the bamboo. Here Chowne lined them up ready to charge through the 20 yards of more open jungle. The other platoons followed at 50 yard intervals. Suddenly, and with a shout, McVey’s men charged up the slope, completely surprising the enemy, some of whom could be seen sitting on top of their defences. The Japanese fled. Although seven had been seen just before the attack started, they may have been a rearguard preparing to withdraw as no discarded weapons were found. The position, shaped like a new moon, had been dug for a company to meet attack from the west, and was on a commanding feature controlling the tracks to the north and North-east down the spurs and the track to Tirimoro.
Handley’s company occupied this position which soon became known as Starvation Hill. Here the company remained for seven days guarding the right flank. It took a largish party of men to carry out a stretcher, and the whole company spent one-third of each day (each man took three hours) carrying up food, water and stores from the Bumi. Everywhere there was mud and the troops attempted to cut steps in the glassy black ooze. Bully and biscuits were the fare for the seven days, and fires could not be lit for cooking.
Documents captured during the advance of the 22nd Battalion along the south coast of the Huon Peninsula raised some doubt in the minds of those who translated them as to whether all the Japanese (about 500), who had come to the Mongi about 6th September, had withdrawn or whether about 200 were still in the area. All the indications from the 22nd Battalion itself were that the entire Japanese force had withdrawn. This fact was emphasised when, after a 10-hour advance on the 27th, the battalion found deserted Japanese positions at Mange Point.6
By the 28th reports from the Papuans of enemy movement from Finschhafen on inland tracks to Sattelberg, observed enemy movement in Salankaua Plantation, and the noise of barge traffic each night, suggested that the Japanese might be gradually withdrawing from Finschhafen. Any exposed movement by the 2/13th and 2/15th, however, was fired at, and captured documents showed clearly that the enemy naval troops had been exhorted to stand firm and hold Finschhafen. Air reconnaissance also disclosed extensive defences in the Salankaua Plantation. Bearing
all these factors in mind, Windeyer decided that, in order to gain control of Finschhafen, Kakakog must first be captured as command of this area would make the enemy’s positions in the Salankaua Plantation untenable. His orders for the 28th stated that the 2/13th Battalion would capture the Kakakog Ridge area, the 2/15th Battalion would continue probing enemy defences, the 2/17th Battalion would remain brigade reserve, and “Sattelforce” (principally Main’s and Pike’s companies) under Major Maclarn7 would control the Sattelberg Road and tracks leading to the beach-head, as well as the brigade’s lines of communications.
Maclarn concentrated part of Sattelforce at Tareko where four Japanese stalking the position were killed. Between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. about a
company of Japanese made three attacks on Main’s isolated position at Jivevaneng. All attacks came from the same place, to the front and left. As they came in the Japanese shouted and cheered, although by the end of the fighting they had little for their cheer leaders to be pleased about. By the end of the last attack, Main’s company was low in ammunition and feared a dawn attack. For the loss of one wounded so far in the Jivevaneng fighting, Main estimated that the enemy had suffered between 50 and 60 casualties; he had counted 20.
The main task that day was to be carried out by the 2/13th Battalion. The objectives were “Triangle” – three half-demolished buildings – and “City” – the remains of the Kakakog Hospital, on the west and east ends of Kakakog respectively. Cribb was to move his “D” Company through the position reached by Cooper’s “A” Company on the 27th and occupy Cribb’s Spur on the way to Triangle. Cooper’s company would then pass through and occupy Cooper’s Spur on the way to City.
Windeyer reached these forward companies about an hour before they moved off. At 2 p.m. Cribb left, and an hour and a quarter later he reported that his company was on Cribb’s Spur. In fact, the company was on the wrong spur, but this was not discovered until the morrow. By 4.10 p.m. Cooper’s men had passed through Cribb’s position, but when the forward platoon (Lieutenant Green’s8) was fired on from a track junction at 5 p.m. Colvin ordered both companies to dig in for the night. The 2/13th’s forward patrols had penetrated about 300 yards beyond the 2/15th’s positions, but they had been seen when “scrounging” three pairs of binoculars and a sword from an unoccupied enemy position on the edge of a coconut plantation. In the subsequent bombardment by a Japanese gun, the patrol was in more danger from falling coconuts than from the gunnery itself.
The difficulties of the move had been under-estimated, and in their arduous, slow progress the companies had often been forced to cut their way. The enemy seemed aware of the threat from the west and their snipers caused casualties. A ravine near the head of Ilebbe Creek, which was not correctly shown on the map, impeded progress and caused Cribb to do what most other commanders in the jungle had done at one time or another – mistake one position for another.
While these companies were struggling towards Kakakog, Handley sent out Lieutenant Webb’s platoon from Starvation Hill to patrol North-east towards battalion headquarters. After about 150 yards the platoon ran into heavy fire. The leading men of Lance-Sergeant Arnott’s9 section were within ten yards of the enemy position when the Japanese opened up. Private Thorpe10 was wounded in the leg. Arnott, although wounded himself, applied a field dressing to Thorpe’s wound before crawling out
through the bamboo. A stretcher bearer, Sergeant Shambler,11 then tried to reach Thorpe, but he was hit five yards from Thorpe and died later. Handley then decided to mortar the Japanese position. Thorpe was killed by Japanese bullets while he lay there. An accurate mortar bombardment enabled the Australians to extricate their three dead and six wounded, all from Arnott’s section. Colvin now ordered Handley to “sit tight” and not to worry about attacking the enemy post between the company and the battalion. In the following days, however, the company did harass the Japanese position which seemed to be occupied by about a company, and Chowne again brought down mortar fire on it.
Back in high places the struggle about reinforcement continued. MacArthur’s headquarters replied on 27th September to Mackay’s signal of the previous day by stating that “before definite decisions are reached further information is requested as to the size of the hostile forces which have been encountered”. On the same day Mackay sent another signal to Blamey asking for the immediate dispatch of one battalion to Finschhafen. Another conference was held on the 27th between Carpender, Mackay and Berryman. When the Australians stressed the urgency of reinforcing Windeyer, Carpender stated that Barbey should be able to
begin moving troops into Finschhafen in three to five days, starting with about 800 men on the first night and continuing with a similar number every second or third night until all were moved. Writing to Herring on the same day, Mackay said:
I consider that the move of troops as above will meet your requirements. ... My own feeling is that our representations will result in a distinct improvement although we may not get everything we ask for.
On the 28th General Herring, Brigadier Sutherland and Brigadier Bierwirth12 entered a plane at Dobodura, intending to fly to Milne Bay to see Barbey and try to hasten the shipping of men and supplies to Finschhafen. When taking off the aircraft crashed and Sutherland, in whom Herring had placed great trust, was killed. It began to seem on the 28th that a battalion would soon sail to join Windeyer. Carpender himself flew to Milne Bay to give effect to his promise of the previous day. In
reply to GHQ’s request for information about enemy strength, Mackay replied late on the 28th:
20 Bde is operating with expedition over considerable area and difficult country and has to guard its dumps and beach-head. Object is to destroy enemy and not allow him to evacuate. Windeyer has captured Japanese order instructing bn combat team attack Australians from direction Sattelberg on 26 Sep, but attack not yet developed and Windeyer has requested reinforcement one bn as soon as possible. On capture Finschhafen intend exploit to Sio with small craft and consider one inf bde after a period of hard fighting not sufficient to accomplish mission with expedition. Huon
Peninsula is defensive flank and vital for [New Britain] operation. The reasons against increasing the force at Finschhafen were both fully understood and considered before requesting movement of additional inf bde, but to date we have been prevented from making good our casualties which to 26 Sep exceed 320. Troops required for Finschhafen are already at Lae so there is no increase in the number being maintained from Buna. Japanese strength estimated maximum 1,800 minimum 500 ...13
Meanwhile at 11 a.m. on the 28th Blamey had signalled MacArthur reminding him of the agreement of 17th September that an additional brigade and Wootten’s headquarters should be sent in if necessary; Blamey considered it most desirable that Wootten should personally direct the movement to Sio to establish radar there. The possibility of a Japanese counter movement should not be entirely ruled out. He would be glad if MacArthur would “concur in dispatching additional requirement”. Mac-Arthur’s reply, sent at 6.15 p.m. that day, said that to accelerate the movement of additional brigades and 9th Division Headquarters “would cause disarrangement of amended program upon which we are engaged. If tactical necessity require it will of course be done at once. I am sure, however, that this is not the case and that Finschhafen within a reasonable time will be in our hands without serious loss.”
On the 29th GHQ informed Mackay that Carpender was being directed to move an additional battalion to Finschhafen at the earliest possible date. Carpender, however, had taken the quickest means to end the unfortunate controversy and had already determined that some reinforcement was necessary. On the day before GHQ’s final authorisation he had sent Commander Adair to Herring’s headquarters with full authority to act for Barbey and arrange for the dispatch of reinforcements.
Wootten, impatient to have the matter solved quickly and sensibly, learnt of the decisions of those above him in this manner. At 4 p.m. on the 28th he was advised that two APDs would arrive that night. At 6 p.m. he was informed that no naval craft were available. He then decided to send the headquarters of the 24th Brigade and one battalion by small craft to join the 22nd Battalion at Mange Point and advance on Finschhafen from the south. Finally, at 8 p.m. he was told that the first LST to finish unloading at Lae that night would be sent to “G” Beach to load troops, who would then be taken to Buna for transfer to APDs and movement to Finschhafen. Soon after 2.30 a.m. on the 29th, when torrential rain was falling over the battle area, the LST pulled in and by 3.20 a.m. the 2/43rd Battalion and a platoon of the 2/13th Field Company were on board and ready to depart for Buna. Colonel Joshua was warned by Wootten that his probable role would be “to take over protection of beach maintenance area including seizing and holding Sattelberg”.
During the 29th torrential rain continued in the battle area. This increased the difficulty of carrying supplies forward and wounded out, particularly as the sappers had been unable to rig up a flying-fox over the
Bumi. The difficulties applied mainly to Handley’s men who had suffered nine casualties on the previous day. Haggard men juggled stretchers down treacherous and slippery tracks to the Bumi, while others crawled up with bully and biscuits and ammunition. Both the 2/13th and 2/15th Battalions sent out several probing patrols on the 29th, but by the afternoon it was obvious that surprise had been lost and that the enemy was aware of the Australian intentions. Cooper’s patrols, during the morning and early afternoon, met nothing but trouble as they attempted to find their way towards Kakakog spur and Triangle. Enemy artillery inflicted some casualties, and patrols were unable to make headway. Worried about the outflanking movements, Colvin at 4 p.m. ordered Cooper to withdraw to Cribb’s position.
Patrols from the 2/15th met with better luck. Two from Stuart’s company penetrated east to Ilebbe Creek without meeting any Japanese. The forward section of Lieutenant Nesbitt’s platoon went about 50 yards into Salankaua Plantation and about 20 yards from a bridge. Nesbitt then patrolled about 100 yards above the bridge and met a patrol from Angus’ company which had found a deserted but well-built enemy position 50 yards below the crossing – obviously the one which had opposed the original crossing. Further movement by the 2/15th was stopped by enfilading fire from Kakakog.
Windeyer’s main headache at this time was caused by the supply problem. Engineers, pioneers and infantry were all carrying supplies and ammunition to the forward troops along the precipitous slippery slope and were carrying the wounded down to the jeep road. The water problem was acute and Windeyer was particularly worried because few water containers were available. In spite of all the difficulties, however, he was now becoming a trifle impatient as his forward troops were not keeping ahead of the supply situation. No real progress was being made although the rations, carried up at the expense of so much sweat and labour, were being consumed. Windeyer therefore decided that the plan of outflanking Kakakog from the west should be abandoned.
During these frustrating days the Salvation Army and YMCA were, as ever, up with the troops. Of all the admirable religious and welfare organisations that looked after the troops’ physical and spiritual comfort, few could rival the “Salvos”. There are few Australian ex-soldiers who will not put a coin in the Salvos’ box when it is passed round on the street corner or in the pub, for it brings back memories of help during bitter fighting and tough going. One soldier who took part in the fighting across the Bumi wrote soon afterwards:
Another army came down to the Bumi – its weapons a coffee urn, its captain a Good Samaritan. Proudly he hoisted his unit’s flag.14 ... He came not to reproach us for past sins or preach of the men we might have been. It is ideal, practical Christianity; he succoured the wounded and sick, revived the tired and weary; his was a happy little half-way tavern for those that passed.
Windeyer was now becoming more concerned about his right flank. A Papuan Infantry patrol made contact with a large enemy force moving east along the tracks in the Kumawa and Sisi areas, while Papuan headquarters saw four Japanese officers and 50 men moving east towards Sattelberg. Reports from natives were also beginning to reach Windeyer through Colonel Allan, who had been collecting native carriers and sending out native observers since the landing. By the 29th Allan was able to attach the first substantial line of carriers to the troops on the Sattelberg Road. Allan’s hard work and the confidence which his return inspired among the local natives were now paying dividends. Native reports on the 29th supplemented those of the Papuan soldiers to the effect that large numbers of Japanese were withdrawing from the Finschhafen, Langemak Bay and Logaweng areas and were passing through Tirimoro, Gurunkor and Kumawa towards Sattelberg. Although this news possibly meant that the task of gaining Finschhafen would be easier, it also caused concern for the security of the maintenance area at Scarlet Beach. The news that the 2/43rd Battalion was on the way was therefore very welcome.
After leaving “G” Beach at 3.30 a.m. on the 29th the 2/43rd Battalion reached Buna fourteen hours later, and left for the battle area in three APDs soon after dusk. The ships arrived off Scarlet Beach at 2 o’clock next morning, and by dawn the battalion had been guided to its assembly area. A tank reconnaissance party landed with the 2/43rd, but lack of shipping made it impossible for Wootten to send the tanks Windeyer wanted. The APDs, after landing 838 troops, took away 134 walking wounded. Although this relieved the harassed and overworked medical authorities to some extent, the APDs were unable to stay long enough to take off the more serious cases, some of whom had been held at the MDS and CCS for over a week. Hearing that maintenance of Finschhafen was now to be his responsibility, Wootten wasted no time and ordered six LCMs belonging to the Engineer Special Brigade to return from Finschhafen for resupply missions.
When Joshua landed, Broadbent handed him an instruction from Windeyer. “You will,” said the instruction, “relieve the troops known as Sattelforce. ... This relief to be completed as speedily as possible to enable 2/17th Bn to concentrate for operations against Finschhafen.” Upon the completion of the relief, Joshua would control all routes leading into the Scarlet Beach and Heldsbach areas and would prepare to capture Sisi and Sattelberg. This instruction was elaborated when, at 9 a.m. on the 30th, Windeyer and Joshua conferred. By the end of the day Captain Siekmann’s company of the 2/43rd had relieved Pike’s company in the Katika area, Captain Grant’s company relieved Main’s company at Jivevaneng, while the other two companies were at the mouth of the Song and at Zag. During the morning Main’s men were again attacked by about a platoon, but the enemy soon retired, leaving three dead. When Main handed over, leaving six of his men there as guides, his company had had three men wounded and had counted 30 dead Japanese. The company had maintained a magnificent defence in its isolated position,
often short of ammunition and food. Water was obtained, from a spring about 200 yards from the perimeter.
In the afternoon Angus’ and Stuart’s companies of the 2/15th advanced towards Ilebbe Creek and by dusk both were dug in on a knoll facing what appeared to be a strong Japanese defensive position on a ridge east of the creek. This advance, by confining the enemy to the east side of the creek, made it possible to use the motor transport ford and bring the jeephead south of the river. With the whole of the 2/17th Battalion now available as a reserve Captain Sheldon’s company of the 2/17th relieved Major Newcomb’s company of the 2/15th at Kamloa, thus enabling the 2/15th, apart from its two forward companies, to concentrate near the ford.
At 6.20 a.m. on the 30th Colvin visited the two forward companies of the 2/13th. When he returned to his headquarters he telephoned Windeyer that the companies were not far enough south and not high enough to attack City or Triangle from their present positions, and he was dubious about an attack from the west as it would take Cooper’s men a long time to move around to higher ground. Windeyer, then at Scarlet Beach conferring with Joshua, felt that he must again see the area for himself.
While Windeyer was on his way south, Colvin’s patrols were active. One under Lieutenant Angel set out at 9.40 a.m. to reconnoitre a route south towards Triangle, and returned at 1.20 p.m. having reached the bottom of the spur leading up to Triangle without seeing any signs of the enemy. A few minutes later Windeyer arrived, and at 1.30 p.m. he and Colvin surveyed the ground towards City and Triangle from the 2/13th’s observation post. They decided that an attack from the North-west would be feasible, using Angel’s approach as the forming-up place.
The plan for an attack at midday next day soon took shape. The 2/13th would attack with Cribb on the right towards Triangle and Deschamps on the left towards City, with Cooper’s company in reserve in the initial stages of the attack. The 2/15th Battalion would concentrate round Snell’s Hill as brigade reserve; while the 2/17th would have two companies ready to exploit into Salankaua Plantation.
In the afternoon Angel’s platoon moved cautiously out to cover the forming-up place already discovered by him behind a small knoll. By dusk the platoon, with a telephone, was in position, and reported that the route which the two companies would follow towards the forming-up place next morning was mostly covered from view. About the same time, however, a more ominous report was received from Cooper to the effect that the Japanese could be heard digging in on the next spur about 100 yards away.
Now that the 2/13th Battalion had a clearer idea of where it was, and had better land communications since the occupation of the MT ford, Windeyer felt that the battalions were at last grouped for what he believed would be a series of decisive battalion actions. It was felt within the brigade that 1st October would be a decisive day.
Just before first light Deschamps sent Lieutenant Hall’s platoon to a small kunai knoll to the South-east on the east bank of Ilebbe Creek to secure the ground ahead of the forming-up place, after which the platoon would join its company during the advance. At 7.30 a.m. the companies began to move. As Deschamps left, Cribb moved in, while Cooper took Cribb’s place.
The assaulting companies were warned that an air-strike on enemy positions by Bostons and Vengeances would take place between 11 a.m. and midday. Twenty guns would fire a concentration of 30 rounds a gun immediately after the air strike, which would be signalled by pyrotechnics from the aircraft. At the same time Handley would mortar the enemy who had been attempting during the night to get round his positions. The companies were warned to be in position by 10.45 a.m.
Ten minutes before that time all were awaiting the attack, glad that something decisive was likely to happen after trying days of uncertainty. From Hall’s platoon, about 300 yards ahead of the forming-up place on the reverse slope of a kunai knoll at the end of a spur running up to City about 250 yards away, some grenade or mortar fire could be heard from 10 a.m. At 10.45 a.m. Hall reported that he had two casualties and that every time he made any forward move towards the top of the kunai knoll enemy machine-guns from City sent the platoon to earth. At the same time, Hall informed Deschamps that he could see an enemy position on the east bank of Ilebbe Creek near the Salankaua Road; the enemy was moving round in the position, which was screened by heavy timber.
In his planning for the attack, Windeyer had requested air support not before 11 a.m. and not after midday. This would be followed by artillery concentrations on the targets as the companies attacked. For some reason, inexplicable to Windeyer and his men, the air attack began at 10.35 a.m., about half an hour before the scheduled time. Ten Vultee Vengeances and eight Bostons dive-bombed and strafed the Salankaua Plantation and Kakakog areas. Apparently they did no damage, but they did at least keep the Japanese heads down while Cribb and Deschamps were getting into position. It had been so often stressed in the lessons from jungle warfare that the air force must, as far as possible in any set attack, abide by the attacking infantry’s timetable; this failure to do so, after all the experience round Salamaua and Lae, was regrettable. Fortunately the infantry were already on the forming-up place so that when the aircraft disappeared at 11 a.m. the artillery and supporting arms opened up their clamour as a background to the advance of the two companies at 11.15.
Deschamps received Hall’s report about the enemy on his left flank about a quarter of an hour before zero. Fearing an attack on his exposed flank if he advanced straight south towards City, Deschamps changed his plan at the last minute. To his request that the company should take this position first, Colvin replied that the position could be included in the company’s left flank, but that the battalion’s attack must go in on City and Triangle as arranged.
Deciding that the position must be captured, Deschamps committed the whole of his company, except for Hall’s platoon, forward on Hall’s Spur. Thus, while Cribb’s men advanced south as planned, Deschamps’ switched direction and advanced due east. Angel’s platoon reached Ilebbe Creek without interference. Sergeant Crawford’s platoon followed, but came under heavy fire from enemy positions to the north and North-east and suffered a few casualties before dispersing behind whatever cover they could find in the bed of the creek. Deschamps, following with his headquarters, quickly withdrew Crawford’s rear section and moved back with the object of rejoining his two platoons from another direction. Unable to do this, he tried to join Hall’s platoon but took the wrong spur and ran into an enemy pocket well up towards Triangle.
The covering fire for the attack on Kakakog was now in full throat with the artillery firing concentrations on Kakakog and the Vickers sweeping the Salankaua Plantation. The enemy was retaliating from many points east of Ilebbe Creek and from Kakakog Ridge with heavy small arms fire. Soon the harsh coughing of the Japanese machine-guns was intermingled with the crash of bombs as they began to mortar the two beleaguered platoons in Ilebbe Creek.
Meanwhile Cribb’s company was having a torrid time. After the finish of the air attack the company advanced south towards Triangle with two platoons forward (Lieutenant MacDougal’s and Lieutenant Birmingham’s) and the third (Lieutenant Pope’s) following 75 yards behind. Expecting that the other company would be advancing on the left, Cribb suddenly realised that all was not well when, as his leading men drew level with Hall’s platoon, fire from the direction of Hall’s Spur was poured into his company’s flank. Sliding down a 12-foot slope the men reached a narrow track. After advancing 25 yards beyond the creek, MacDougal’s platoon was halted by snipers, while Birmingham’s was pinned down by fire from Triangle. Pope’s men had the misfortune to be hit by their own artillery and three were killed.
With both companies pinned down and out of communication there was little Colvin could do except to send Cooper’s company to the forming-up place to be ready for anything as soon as some information became available. When Lieutenant Murray, the Intelligence officer, told his battalion commander what was happening, Colvin ordered Cooper to send one platoon round the left and engage the enemy, thus allowing the two platoons in the creek to attack. By 12.10 p.m. telephone communication was established by Cribb, who asked that the artillery fire should be lifted about 100 yards to the right. A quarter of an hour later Corporal Kennedy15 came up from the creek and reported that Crawford was organising an attack as the two platoons could not remain much longer in the creek because of the steady drain of casualties. Colvin told Kennedy to return and inform Crawford and Angel that Lieutenant Ryan’s16 platoon would
be supporting them from the left. At 12.30 p.m. Ryan moved North-east from the hill on to the flat and formed up ready to attack.
Always when a situation seemed desperate the Australian Army appeared to have the knack of producing a leader of the necessary character. This time it was Crawford. With Angel’s aid he organised the five sections for a direct attack. Feeling that they could not wait much longer, Crawford arranged that when he threw a grenade over the top the two platoons would come out of the creek and, with fixed bayonets, rush the enemy post. Suddenly Private Rolfe17 stood up on the bank of the creek and, firing his Bren from the hip, silenced one of the most troublesome posts. At the same time, Ryan’s men left their forming-up place and immediately came under heavy fire which hit three men. One section
dashed to the right into the creek, hoping to cross and attack, while the other forward section got into a small re-entrant on the left from which it was able to fire on the enemy position which was holding up the remainder of the platoon. Enemy snipers were also inflicting casualties from the tree tops. Crawford divided his platoon and himself took command of the left flank, adjoining Angel, while Corporal Clothier,18 who carried on although wounded, led on the right.
Crawford’s grenade exploded. The men scrambled out of the creek, their bayonets gleaming. Charging across the open ground towards the main enemy position near a hut on the bend of the creek, they came under heavy enemy fire, but the 40 yards’ charge could not be stopped. Some Japanese fled, dodging among the coconut palms. After putting his platoon in position facing Kakakog, Crawford went back to see how the wounded had fared. At the hut was the Japanese post which had been bypassed, and was still in action. While this post was being engaged Crawford was wounded. Angel also was wounded, but he and Crawford carried on until the action was over. Rolfe silenced another enemy post with his Bren, but was wounded when advancing on another. Despite the casualties the spirit of the Australian charge carried all before it. With bayonets and small arms fire the Japanese defenders were killed. In the close fighting the wounded Angel actually came to grips with a Japanese against a wall of the hut, but the Japanese was quickly bayoneted by one of Angel’s men.
Swinging to the right and still under fire from enemy positions farther out in the plantation, this gallant band of men, under its wounded but inspired leaders, rapidly covered the 30 yards to the second enemy post and destroyed the enemy there. As tree snipers were still proving troublesome, Colvin ordered Cooper to fire a Bren from the hillside and sweep the tree tops. This silenced the snipers. There was still one enemy post farther north on the east bank of Ilebbe Creek which continued to fire on Crawford’s and Angel’s men. Twelve bombs from a 2-inch mortar helped to keep this post quieter while a section from Ryan’s platoon, under cover of the bombs, moved round on the left towards the post. The Japanese did not wait, and, like a few who got away from the fury of Crawford’s attack, they fled east into the plantation. About 50 Japanese were killed in the main attack. The two platoons lost 4 killed and 17 wounded, while Ryan’s platoon had 2 killed and 4 wounded.
At this substantial cost of 27 men the battalion’s left flank was cleared. More extensive reconnaissance on the preceding days might have disclosed these enemy positions. Colvin had asked for air photographs of the plantation area, but only one set was available in the brigade and these were brought forward by Windeyer on the day of the attack. Many other battle commanders, confronted with Deschamps’ problem at the last moment, would have reacted similarly. Although experience has proved the danger of changing a plan or a direction of attack at the last moment,
it may well have been that there was no alternative. Deschamps believed it would have been fatal to advance on the original objective leaving his left flank open, and he was the only man who could really decide.
By 12.55 p.m. the position across Ilebbe Creek was mopped up. As the platoon commanders were both wounded, Lieutenant Murray, who was on the spot, sent the remnants of Crawford’s platoon followed by Angel’s to join Hall’s platoon. Ryan watched the captured ground with sections on both sides of the creek. At 1 p.m. Deschamps set out from battalion headquarters to join Hall. As he arrived, just before his other two platoons, Japanese tracer bullets set fire to the grass round Hall’s position. The Japanese laughed as the men leapt out of their holes to beat out the fire.
While the fight across Ilebbe Creek was raging Cribb’s company continued to meet strong opposition and found progress difficult. The enemy posts at Triangle were on top of a cliff-face hidden by thick undergrowth. Having failed to find a feasible approach to Triangle, and held up by fire from City and a tin shed as well at Triangle, Cribb reorganised his men and moved South-east towards City. At 1 p.m. six Japanese were observed crawling up to attack company headquarters which, in its movement South-east, had now reached a position south of Hall’s position. Sergeant Morris,19 standing and firing his Bren from his shoulder, killed four and the other two were killed by rifle fire. Five of these Japanese had been acting as magazine carriers for the first one who had a machine-gun.
Colvin was anxious to push on, but he considered that because the country was so thick it would be useless to attempt to operate on more than a two-company front. As it was, his leading companies had become disorganised and, instead of advancing in line, one was now behind the other. At 1.25 p.m. Colvin told Windeyer what was happening and asked whether he could have a company from the 2/15th to take over the Ilebbe Creek area as he intended to hold Cooper’s company ready to push through the other two. Windeyer agreed and Snell’s company of the 2/15th was sent forward to take over from Cooper’s.
By 2.30 p.m., with artillery, for which Lieutenant McKeddie20 of the 2/12th Field Regiment was a fearless observer, bombarding Triangle and City, Cribb was on the move again towards City. Lieutenant Ash’s21 platoon relieved Hall’s, thus enabling Deschamps’ battered but reunited company to move forward on the left of Cribb. While MacDougal’s platoon held the present company position, Pope’s moved to high ground on the right of City and Birmingham’s to some high ground on the left to support Deschamps’ advance. Throughout the afternoon the Australians continued to lose men. The task of evacuating the wounded was a heavy one.
Engineers and pioneers, whose arduous task it was to bring up supplies and ammunition, cheerfully volunteered to carry the wounded men up the hill to the 2/15th’s area and then down to the jeephead south of the MT ford.
By 3 p.m. when Snell’s company had taken over Cooper’s area including the Ilebbe Creek positions, Colvin exhorted his two company commanders to push on as fast as possible, if necessary by attacking from the lower slopes. Both companies, however, found it difficult to move forward because of the heavy fire from positions on Kakakog Ridge and because the country over which they were advancing was a series of spurs and gullies with each spur covered by enemy fire.
Reconnoitring for the best line of advance, Deschamps climbed a hill to the east of his troops and saw enemy troops near a tin hut on a spur running in to City. From his position the hut was only 25 yards away, but fire from it and from City prevented any advance. Trying to reconnoitre the tin hut area from the flat to the north, he met another enemy post. He decided, therefore, to attack the tin hut by advancing along the ridge through Cribb’s positions under cover of concentrated fire of all his Brens.
The Brens were being collected when the alert enemy mortared the gathering place and inflicted some casualties. Finally, however, the Brens were installed on the ridge where they began their vicious clatter, and Hall’s men began to advance. Soon after the start the Japanese fired heavily with mortars and machine-guns and stopped the move. For an hour and a half Deschamps tried all routes to the ridge, but could not advance. Finally, at 5 p.m. he recalled Hall and telephoned Colvin. Win-deyer, who was with Colvin, then decided that it was useless to go on battering at the stubborn Kakakog Ridge with the same troops and Deschamps was ordered to hold his ground. During this afternoon of frustrating search for lines of advance the company had suffered more casualties, including Deschamps wounded. Of the officers in the company only Hall was left unscathed and he had had his batman and platoon sergeant wounded beside him. Windeyer warned the 2/15th to be ready to carry out the attack next day but not until he had made a reconnaissance and given further orders.
Cribb’s men had no more success than Deschamps’ during the long afternoon. By 3 p.m. the forward platoons were again pinned down. At this stage of the action the companies were intermingled – Pope’s platoon was on the right of the line, then MacDougal’s, then Deschamps’ three platoons with Hall’s platoon in the lead, and finally Birmingham’s on the left of the line. For two hours Cribb’s company sought means of advancing, but on each occasion heavy fire from the excellently sited enemy positions on Kakakog Ridge stopped the advance after a few yards. A steady drain of casualties was having its effect. By sheer slugging, however, the company had made some little progress when the order came for the two forward companies, plus Cooper’s company which had now come up, to hold the ground gained. When the forward platoons came
back a short distance, crawling on hands and knees, to join the three-company perimeter, there were further casualties. A Japanese with a machine-gun sneaked on to the east end of the spur which the forward platoons were leaving and, firing along the track, wounded Pope and a few others as they stood up. While Morris carried Pope to dead ground the firing, including grenades, continued and one of the medical orderlies was wounded. Pope was unfortunate enough to be badly wounded by a Japanese counter-attack on a position which he could doubtless have safely held had he not been pulled back. For the loss of 10 killed and 70 wounded, the 2/13th Battalion had killed between 80 and 100 Japanese during the fight for Kakakog on 1st October.
While the depleted forward companies were digging in for the night the wounded were on the way back. By 6.30 p.m. all the walking wounded had reached battalion headquarters and the last of the stretcher cases had been collected. Throughout the day the stretcher bearers had carried out with traditional calm their task of attending to the wounded and carrying them back under fire to where weary sappers and pioneers took them out to the jeephead. Darkness had fallen before all the wounded were brought out. All day long Sergeant Halcroft22 had been tending the wounded. At one stage he had been stunned by the blast of a mortar bomb but after recovering, he continued his work during darkness. Finding one man so badly wounded that he could not be moved, Halcroft stayed with him throughout the night trying to save his life even though he knew the Japanese had the wounded covered.
The results of the fighting on 1st October appeared inconclusive. The 2/13th Battalion had not gained its objective, although it was close to it. The threat to Kakakog, however, had the effect of causing the Japanese to abandon some positions in Salankaua Plantation. Towards last light, when they were seen moving towards Pola, patrols from the 2/17th Battalion crossed Ilebbe Creek and found abandoned positions in the plantation, although the Japanese were still resisting at the mouth of the Bumi. The night was quiet except for harassing fire from the Australian artillery.
Evidence of Japanese evacuation of the Finschhafen area was seen by the 22nd Battalion during its rapid advance on 1st October. At 6 a.m. the battalion began to advance from Kasanga, which it had reached the previous day, and two hours later the head of the column reached Nasing-natu. One company then patrolled northwards towards Logaweng, and another led the advance towards Dreger Harbour. By midday the two companies were north of Dreger Harbour and were ordered to patrol towards Timbulum, where natives reported large numbers of Japanese, and to make contact with the 20th Brigade. In the afternoon patrols returned from Timbulum and from 1,000 yards north of Logaweng without making any contact with the Japanese or the Australians. By the late afternoon Colonel O’Connor was able to report, in reply to a question from Brigadier Edgar, that Dreger Harbour was secured, but that facilities for barges appeared limited because of the narrowness of the channels.
Early on 2nd October the 2/17th Battalion found signs that there would be no opposition. The mouth of the Bumi was unoccupied and by 9.15 a.m. a company of the 2/17th had formed a bridgehead across the river with one platoon at Kedam Point. Two companies then passed through, and soon after 9.30 a.m. they were approaching Pola, having met no opposition in the Salankaua Plantation.
At this time the 2/13th Battalion was still in the same position, although patrols had scoured the base of Kakakog Ridge. No chances were taken, however, as it was thought that the enemy might be holding fire until the Australians were descending the exposed slope towards Kakakog. A few rounds of artillery were therefore fired on to the Japanese positions of yesterday. As there were no reactions the 2/13th Battalion was ordered to occupy Kakakog and to mop up and patrol on the Kreutberg Range. The 2/15th Battalion was ordered to move to Simbang, and the 2/17th Battalion to continue its advance along the main Finschhafen Road to Kolem, mopping up as it went.
By 11.25 a.m. Cooper’s company of the 2/13th reported that it was moving up the track into Kakakog and that it was in touch with the 2/17th Battalion moving south on the left. At midday Ash’s platoon entered City where a lone Japanese defender, wounded, was found sitting dejectedly on the steps of a battered hut. A patrol sent to Triangle found hurried signs of evacuation as well as dead Japanese and much equipment. “Imperial Marines and the spirit of Samurai had taken advantage of the night and fled,” wrote one of the men first into Kakakog. In the Australian Army it was universally believed that the marines were Japan’s crack troops. The 20th Brigade felt, justifiably, that in overcoming such a formidable adversary the seal had been fixed to its reputation for fighting efficiency gained against Germans and Italians.
While the 2/13th Battalion was occupying Kakakog, the 2/15th was bypassing Kakakog and the forward elements of the 2/17th were entering Finschhafen and Maneba Point. Windeyer did not think it desirable to report the capture of Finschhafen until Maneba Point was reached. The diarist of the 2/13th Battalion wrote that at 12.15 p.m. the “Brig” said that “Finsch” could be regarded as having “fallen”, although it was extremely hard to know just where “Finsch” was. By 2 p.m. the 2/17th was at Kolem. While Main’s company patrolled the Nugidu Peninsula, Shel-don’s moved along the north shore of Langemak Bay to Simbang which was also reached by the 2/15th at 5.15 p.m. During these mopping-up operations the 2/17th captured two prisoners and killed three stragglers.
From early morning on the 2nd the 22nd Battalion was on the move. One patrol from the Timbulum area failed to reach its objective at Butaweng sawmill after meeting a small Japanese rearguard south of Godowa. A platoon then set out for the sawmill and returned at 5 p.m. with the report that no Japanese were in the area, but that the men had spoken to a company of the 2/17th across the Mape River at 4.30 p.m. Throughout its advance the 22nd Battalion had been entirely maintained
by craft of the 532nd EBSR operating from Lae and by, native porters carrying the stores forward from the beaches.
Although it appeared that the 20th Brigade would soon have another fight on its hands to the west and north, the men were able to relax for the first time since the landing. The troops were soon “scrounging” for souvenirs, one section finding an eight-day clock which was hung up to facilitate its guard duty. “Came evening,” wrote one participant, “and we went down to Finschhafen by the sea; here lay peace, and primitive civilisation, native pads avenued by hibiscus in bloom, stately palms almost regal in their look, flowering frangipani, island fruit in abundance. ... All were happy, we had done our job, once more the 20th had got through.”
Eleven days after the landing at Scarlet Beach the 20th Brigade had reached its objective. It had killed a large number of Japanese and captured a vital area from which future offensives could be launched and which contained excellent facilities for air and naval support. The cost in casualties was 20 officers and 338 men, of whom 8 officers and 65 men had been killed. As well, 6 officers and 295 men were evacuated from their units sick but some of these were back by 2nd October.23 The 532nd EBSR had 50 casualties including 8 killed.
The fighting for Finschhafen had been bitter. At the beginning of October it was becoming clearly apparent that, though the Japanese had yielded the coastal strip, they were assembling to the west where the 3,400-foot peak of Sattelberg dominated the surrounding country. Already one attack from that direction had been beaten back by the 2/17th Battalion, but for the past 48 hours the 2/43rd had been trying to fight through to rescue one of its companies at Jivevaneng. Thus, although Finschhafen itself was captured, it was by no means secure. And evidence was now coming in from the Papuan Infantry and the local natives that more enemy troops were entering the Wareo-Sattelberg area from the north.