Chapter 21: Round Sattelberg and Pabu
BY the end of October the counter-offensive by the 20th Japanese Division had been defeated. Only enemy stragglers now remained in the whole area held by the 9th Division before the counter-attack began, except for the determined company from the 80th Regiment astride the Sattelberg Road in the rear of the 2/17th Battalion. Thus it was possible for the Australian commanders again to plan an offensive. On 5th October, in General Herring’s last operational order, the 9th Division had been instructed to defend Finschhafen, develop it as a base, and gain control of the east coast of the Huon Peninsula up to and including Sio. Many dramatic events had occurred since then, and now it seemed opportune for the new corps commander, General Morshead, to re-state the objective. This he did on 29th October when General Wootten was instructed, as before, to protect Finschhafen, including the Dreger Harbour airstrip, clear the remaining enemy from the general Finschhafen area, and gain the coast as far as Sio.
There was now more chance of carrying out the last part of the order because further troops were available. On 20th October General Mackay passed on to Morshead General MacArthur’s signal that two batteries of the 2/6th Field Regiment at Lae would be moved to Finschhafen. The 11th Anti-Tank Battery and 2/4th Commando Squadron were also warned to prepare for movement to Finschhafen. The most important addition to Wootten’s strength, however, was the 4th Brigade. On 27th October Mackay gave Morshead permission to move it to Finschhafen except for part of one battalion which would remain at Lae. Next day Morshead ordered the brigade, less the 22nd Battalion, already there, and one company of the 29th/46th Battalion, to move to Finschhafen. An additional field company of engineers – the 2/7th – would also move from Lae to Finschhafen as craft became available. The Mongi River would be the boundary between the 9th and 5th Divisions.
On 28th October Mackay received a message from MacArthur’s headquarters giving details of a delay of fifteen days in the launching of the projected operation by Alamo Force against western New Britain. As a result Admiral Carpender’s naval forces would continue to support the II Corps until about 20th November.
Since his conference with Morshead on 25th October Wootten had already decided that the next step must be to secure his flank before advancing north along the coast. This would entail the capture of Sattelberg, followed by an advance to the Gusika-Wareo line. Even with the extra brigade at his disposal he had discarded the idea of attacking Wareo and Sattelberg at the same time. It was obvious that, before there could be any advance up the Sattelberg Road, the stubborn enemy position east of Jivevaneng must be destroyed. This would be a difficult task
because the Japanese were elaborately entrenched and were favoured by the steepness of the ridge along which the road ran, as well as by the thick bamboo which betrayed any movement. To the north of the enemy position was a steep ravine on the far side of which was a dominant ridge topped with a coconut grove. On 29th October Lieutenant Rackham1 of the 2/13th Battalion occupied this coconut area and a patrol from the 2/17th set up a post at Cemetery Corner where the Sattelberg Road could be controlled by fire for another 50 yards to the North-east. “We are now regaining the initiative in this area,” wrote the 2/17th’s diarist on the 29th, “and hope to be able to deal offensively with the enemy in the very near future and again open the road as a main supply route.” Evidence of this determination was contained in Brigadier Windeyer’s operation order received by his three battalion commanders late that night: the 2/13th would attack west from Coconut Grove and guard the Tareko supply route; the 2/17th would engage the enemy from Cemetery Corner and attempt to ambush the suspected Japanese supply route.
As there were now only 35 men in Captain Deschamps’ company of the 2/13th Colonel Colvin sent two more platoons to join him at Coconut Grove. At the same time Major Handley’s company, reinforced by a platoon, began squeezing the Japanese pocket in conjunction with a platoon of the 2/17th at Cemetery Corner. First, Lieutenant Simmons’2 men in small groups, each with a Bren, leap-frogged up each side of the road until they reached four strands of wire across it. With eight men Lieutenant Birmingham then moved on in an attempt to locate the actual enemy positions. Skirting the right of the road Birmingham’s small band penetrated thicker bamboo and reached a position near a dead tree and fallen log on the edge of a clearing of smashed down bamboo. Here they saw some Japanese about 15 yards away in their foxholes, and noted that the position extended west for about 60 yards and north for another 100. After watching for some time the patrol threw grenades into the holes and opened up with the Bren and Owens before withdrawing. After Birmingham returned at 12.30 p.m. Simmons was ordered to occupy the log position, which he did without interference, although the nearest enemy position was but 12 yards away. Just after midday Deschamps sent Rackham’s platoon South-west along the track from Coconut Grove. A patrol from the 2/17th was already in its ambush position to support the 2/13th’s advance. Rackham met the Japanese 250 yards from the grove and inflicted some casualties. Lieutenant Suters’ platoon now took over the advance and cleaned out this Japanese position. He then attacked a machine-gun post 25 yards farther on, killed its occupants and caused the surviving Japanese to flee.
Suters’ platoon then dug in while Lieutenant Hall’s platoon moved up to a position in the 400 yards’ gap between company headquarters and the forward platoon. In the afternoon the Japanese attacked Suters’ rear,
but a patrol led by Rackham cleared the track and stayed forward until dusk. The track was clear at last light but, during the night, the enemy were heard digging in between the two forward platoons. Two of these Japanese diggers lost their way and blundered into the forward platoon’s position. One was shot a few yards from the perimeter but as the other had actually entered the defences and, as it would be dangerous to fire inside, he was left there and shot in the morning.
The squeeze continued on the 31st. An added incentive was that all knew they were soon to be relieved by the 26th Brigade and they wished to clear the road before then. While the 2/17th patrolled towards the Japanese positions on both sides of Jivevaneng Deschamps’ company of the 2/13th prepared to move South-west from Coconut Grove. At 8 a.m. Hall’s men rose from their holes in the ground, hastily dug the previous night, and moved off along the track to join Suters. The platoon was fired on 100 yards ahead from a Japanese position established during the night, but with dash and determination and with hardly a pause the band of 19 men attacked the enemy post on the left and cleaned it out, then formed up again and destroyed the right-hand post. Again the platoon attacked and this time destroyed the enemy machine-gun post straight ahead. The track was now clear and Hall joined Suters and learnt of another Japanese position 100 yards to the north. Nothing daunted, the gallant platoon attacked again and its spirit carried all before it. Several Japanese were killed and the remainder fled.
It was bad luck that Hall’s spirited series of actions could not be capitalised, but the commanders felt that this thrust through an area which probably included the vital enemy supply line would need a stronger shaft than was available to support the spearhead. Thus Deschamps’ company gathered again in the area around and forward of Coconut Grove while two other companies of the 2/13th blocked up on the right and left of the road towards the enemy position. During the afternoon Colvin called all his company commanders together and said that they would exert pressure now and keep it up. He pointed out that in such a close fight captured ground must not be given up as it would only have to be fought for again. At 7 p.m. Simpson rang Colvin and told him that the 2/17th would attack the Japanese positions on the Sattelberg Road; he asked Colvin to indicate his forward posts by firing a Very light at 8.30 a.m. Sickness and sniping had depleted the ranks of the 2/17th, living conditions were most unpleasant, and the supply line was precarious. The battalion diarist at the end of October wrote:–
The battalion at present is rather uncomfortable owing to the almost incessant rain over the past 48 hours. This afternoon mist obscured the whole area and seriously hampered vision. Everyone presents rather sorry spectacle as we are now reduced to one set of clothing. A relief will be welcome when it arrives. The main Sattelberg Road has been cut now for 13 days but it is hoped that this situation will be rectified in the very near future.3
As might have been expected, damp prevented the Very lights being fired on 1st November but, as requested by Simpson, Lieutenant Simmons’ platoon at the log was ready to advance and occupy the positions captured by the 2/17th. Simpson himself was not present as he had received orders to report immediately to brigade headquarters. He left Major Broadbent in command of the 2/17th.
At 11.30 a.m. the companies of the 2/13th Battalion on the road kept their heads down as the 2/17th attacked the Japanese position on the north of the road east of Cemetery Corner. Lieutenant McLeod’s platoon led the attack along the north side of the road. The thickness of the bamboo and the rugged nature of the country forced the men to advance in single file. After 20 yards they were fired on and suffered two casualties. As such an advance could only result in further casualties Broadbent called it off. He then rang Colvin and stated that he would attack on both sides of the track on the 2nd and would the 2/13th please create a diversion.
The Japanese pocket was now in an unenviable position. Deschamps on the north, the 2/15th to the south, and two battalions surrounding it in the centre were all exerting pressure on the position itself or on its supply line, but the Japanese were still very much in occupation next morning, when at 8.45 a.m. a company of the 2/17th under Major Maclarn moved off from the east side of Jivevaneng to take over where McLeod had left off on the previous day. A quarter of an hour later pandemonium broke out from the 2/13th as all its weapons were fired for 15 minutes in a grand diversionary demonstration. Birmingham’s platoon which had relieved Simmons’ at the log on the previous evening added to the racket by yelling. Broadbent on the previous day had been asked by the 2/13th to lower the range of his mortars which were falling near the log. Now it was his turn to ask his enthusiastic sister battalion to fire farther to the right and not into his advancing troops. At 9.30 a.m. Birmingham’s men smartly lay low in their holes as the mortar bombs of the 2/17th once again began to fall near the log.
By 10 a.m. Maclarn was ready to attack. Despite the determination of the attackers progress could be measured only in yards and the advance almost came to a standstill. About 6,000 rounds fired from Maclarn’s Vickers forced the Japanese – and the 2/13th – to keep their heads down. It also served the useful purpose of clearing much of the bamboo cane and tangled growth surrounding and covering the Japanese position. Grenades were now out of the question because of the fragmentation danger to both battalions. Despite this constant pressure the Japanese did not falter and any careless movement from either of the battalions drew immediate fire.
By midday Madam’s men had inched forward to a position north of the road, where they could be seen from a 2/13th Battalion observation post. Only about 150 yards separated the forward troops of both battalions but the enemy was still firmly wedged in between them in the tangle of broken bamboo. Colvin and Broadbent arranged to call out and
try to estimate the distance between both battalions. “What shall we yell out?” said Colvin. “Tally ho – the Red Fox [Simpson’s nickname],” replied Broadbent.4 Birmingham’s men at the log shouted the well-known cry but there was no answer.
While this fighting was going on, Wootten was holding a conference at Windeyer’s headquarters. He outlined the future role of the 20th and 26th Brigades and stated that the relief of the 20th Brigade by the 26th could not await the opening of the Sattelberg Road. Windeyer replied that he expected the road would be opened in time for the relief. This conference met after lunch; at 2.15 p.m. his battalions received an order from Windeyer that they must try to link up; at 4 p.m. they received another stating that the road must be opened “today”. The 2/17th therefore battered into the Japanese position. At 4.30 the leading men of both battalions waved to one another from both sides of the clearing. A Japanese in the centre waved to both. Three-quarters of an hour later Birmingham found that the Japanese had evacuated the near-by defences which he had been intending to grenade. It now seemed that the Japanese had left the south side of the road but the gathering darkness prevented further investigation. The fierce squeeze by the two battalions on 2nd November had its effect. At 6.30 a.m. on the 3rd Lieutenant Mair of the 2/13th led his company forward along the road and found all the enemy positions abandoned. Telephone line was immediately laid and the road was opened a few hours before the advanced guard of the 26th Brigade
came up the road. The 20th Brigade had done its job and the Sattelberg Road was open for the next phase of operations.
Meanwhile, to the north, patrols had been active. Lieutenant Buckley,5 of the 2/48th, led a patrol about 1,000 yards west from Katika on the 30th. He was attacked by about 35 Japanese but before withdrawing killed 14 of them including an officer. A patrol of 13 led by Lieutenant Harvey6 of the 2/43rd and Lieutenant Rice of the Papuan Battalion left North Hill on 29th October to investigate Japanese activity north and west of Bonga, and particularly round Imperial. Next morning the patrol found that the position occupied by the 2/43rd’s anti-tank platoon before the Japanese counter-attack had not been touched, and then moved west to a good position where the main track could be clearly watched. At 10.25 a.m. three Japanese came down the track towards the coast; one was armed but sick and the others were wounded and unarmed. Half an hour later three more Japanese came down carrying heavy packs; only one was armed. At 12.10 p.m. one Japanese went hurriedly to the west along the 1,000 yards stretch of visible track. Later two more small parties of unarmed Japanese were seen moving with heavy loads towards the coast. It was apparent that the Japanese were using this track as an evacuation route and as a supply route also.
On the 1st the diarist of one of the battalions of the 24th Brigade noted “we learnt with regret” that Brigadier Evans was leaving the brigade. As mentioned, Colonel Simpson was appointed to administer command of the brigade. With only the briefest of warnings, Simpson entered a jeep and sped north to take over. Evans was waiting. “You’ll find the brigade in good heart,” he said as he entered his own jeep and left for the south.
That night, Simpson outlined his coastal patrol policy to Colonel Joshua of the 2/43rd: the aim was eventually to reoccupy Pino Hill and ambush the Japanese using the coastal track. Simpson’s other two battalions were actively patrolling west in the area between the Song and the Siki but could seldom find any Japanese. On the 2nd Lieutenant Harvey led a patrol of four men from the 2/43rd Battalion and ten Papuans north on a patrol destined to play an important part in later planning. Harvey’s subsequent report was illuminating.
Reached OP 1500 hrs NMS – last 200 yards crawled through kunai. At 1650 hrs 2 Japs moved down track with rifles slung moving in a confident manner, no hats. 0200 hrs till dawn movement was heard but unable to distinguish cause. Considerable troop movement both ways along track. 0635 hrs 27 Japs moved up track. These troops appeared fresh and were armed with LMGs and rifles. Full heavy packs. Some had caps camouflaged with steel helmets on packs. These packs appeared larger than normal packs – blanket roll on pack. 3 were carrying what appeared to be large map cases and 4 carrying bags in excess of packs (in one group). 0712 hrs 2 Japs with rifles and very heavy packs one with cap and one without – both with steel helmets on packs moved up track. 0745 hrs 1 lone Jap with full pack and rifle (complete pack camouflaged with net and in net grass and small
branches) very nervous, small dixie in hand. 0945-2 more Japs up track (heavy packs and rifles). At same time party of 4 Japs seen travelling down carrying small haversacks on back. 1 armed with what appeared SMG – remainder unarmed. No further movement until relieved. ... Throughout night into early morning barge movement heard. ... Highly probable troops moving up track had just been landed from barges heard. Their equipment and physical condition were not of troops brought back for rest. Our OP was within 50 yards of track and enemy is unaware of his being watched. During night consider unwise to post sentries closer to track as earlier recce disclosed that enemy were in the habit of resting on track in area of OP. Should a fighting [patrol] be required strongly recommend a company job owing to nature of ground. 1 platoon could inflict casualties but could not fully cover enemy dispersion. No water in OP area. ... All troops moving on track appeared confident and not anticipating trouble.
From these invaluable reports came the germ of a big idea destined to have a profound effect on the campaign.
On 1st November Wootten sent his plans to the three brigadiers and next day two conferences took place, first at divisional headquarters and then at Windeyer’s headquarters. At the Heldsbach conference were Wootten and his senior staff officers, the commanders and staffs of the 20th and 26th Brigades, the commanders of the tank squadron, divisional artillery and divisional engineers. Wootten’s general intention was to resume the offensive, now that the enemy’s counter-attack had failed and additional Australian troops had arrived. “The immediate object,” stated the divisional report, “was to be the capture of the high ground Sattelberg–Palanko by the 26th Brigade, supported by all available divisional resources, with a view to a subsequent advance to the Gusika-Wareo line.” Brigadier Whitehead was instructed to reconnoitre the area “at once” and to make his detailed plan. As tanks could probably be used on the Sattelberg Road, the 26th Brigade and the tank squadron (18 tanks) would immediately begin training together to work out the best tactics, and methods of cooperation and control.7 Wootten also stressed that the arrival of the tanks must be concealed from the enemy; they were to be covered from air observation, and were to move forward only with infantry protection. Whitehead estimated that he would probably need about nine tanks.
Wootten ordered the 20th Brigade to take over the central sector. The role of both 20th and 24th Brigades would then be to continue vigorous patrolling in order to drive the enemy farther back and distract his attention from the 26th Brigade’s preparations. Finally the 24th Brigade would prepare to send a battalion north, possibly as a diversionary operation, to occupy a position astride the Gusika-Wareo track, and thus cut the enemy supply line and threaten Wareo from the east.
In such rugged country there was need for careful administrative planning to prepare roads and supply dumps before an offensive could be
successfully launched against the Sattelberg citadel. The roads were very cut up because of the rains in the last three days of October and it became necessary to restrict the movement of vehicles other than jeeps. It was imperative to build up large forward supply dumps, so that wet weather would not slow up an offensive. By jeep and trailer and by native carrier reserve dumps were built up at Kumawa (20 days for 500) and at Jivevaneng (20 days for 2,000) by 14th November.8 As water might be scarce all available two-gallon containers were filled and stored at Jivevaneng.
As usual, maintenance of the Finschhafen area proved a difficult task. MacArthur’s decision to delay the opening of the New Britain operation helped, however, and more troops and supplies were poured into Finschhafen. For instance, on 1st November there were only 12,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition in the area, but stocks were now increased by two LCM loads a day. As the daily average expenditure during this period of preparation was only 500 rounds, a satisfactory reserve was available when the Sattelberg offensive began. A large number of American troops, equipment and stores were coming in during this period to establish the base for the Fifth Air Force and a base for PT boats at Dreger Harbour. In the 9th Division’s report the period was described thus:–
All construction units, AA units, and administrative detachments, with their personnel, vehicles, equipment and stores, were landed on Godowa Beach, from LSTs. The beach became chaotically overcrowded because of insufficient means to clear it, and heavy rain for several days turned Timbulum Plantation behind the beach into a quagmire. Vehicles had to be dragged off the beach by bulldozers and left in the mud behind. Gradually, however, roads were built to Dreger and the congestion slowly abated.
In preparation for the attack on Sattelberg the enemy supply lines were increasingly attacked by Allied aircraft and PT boats. From aerial reconnaissance, patrol information, native reports, captured documents and prisoners, the staffs now had a fairly clear picture of the enemy’s rearward supply and reinforcement system. Nambariwa, near Sio, was known to be his main forward supply distribution base, where barges from Madang and submarines from Rabaul discharged their cargoes. Supplies and troops thence moved down the coast in barges to staging points at Sialum Island, Kanomi, Walingai, Wandokai and Lakona, or overland along the track recently taken by the 79th Regiment from Kalasa to Wareo. This area of sea and land was vigorously strafed and bombed. For instance on 2nd November 12 Vultees and 15 Thunderbolts dive-bombed and strafed suspected dumps and bivouac areas at Nambariwa and the track south.
By November the Japanese had a healthy horror of the PT boats which had many accomplishments to their credit. For instance, on the
night of 1st–2nd November they sank two empty Japanese barges heading south from Walingai; next night two more empty barges were sunk heading South-east three miles off Blucher Point; next night off Kelanoa five were sunk loaded with stores and heading South-east. The tempo of barge hunting was increasing; in the period 3rd September to 22nd October 15 Japanese barges, 6 of which were carrying troops and the remainder stores, were sunk and 7 damaged; now in three nights 9 were sunk.
The 20th Japanese Division’s supply difficulties, already acute, were thus accentuated. Further evidence of its plight was furnished when on 31st October 285 native men, women and children came in through the 2/28th and 2/32nd Battalion lines from the Fior and Palanko areas, and said that the Japanese were short of food, and were raiding native gardens. Reinforcements were coming in mostly in small groups along the Gusika-Wareo track and many wounded had left the area along the same track in the past few days. This confirmed the information from the patrols of the Papuan Battalion and the 2/43rd.
The 2/23rd took over from the 2/15th on 3rd November after having slithered and cursed its way up Easy Street. The battalion’s task was now to hold Kumawa at all costs and patrol to find enemy strength, and routes round enemy positions. The 2/24th was next to move when, on the 3rd, half the battalion set out up the track. There still remained an enemy pocket near the road north of Jivevaneng, and Windeyer hoped to clear it before the final relief. That afternoon Captain Dinning’s company of the 2/17th began an attack on the position. The plan was that the company should drive the enemy off the ledge close to the road and force him into a re-entrant. From Dinning’s start-line near the road to his objective would be a mere 75 yards. Without any opening fire support, the company attacked with two platoons forward. After advancing only about 20 to 30 yards the leading platoons came under heavy fire from enemy positions concealed in bamboo; one of the leading platoon commanders – Lieutenant Graham – was fatally wounded, four men were killed outright and 8 wounded. Though only 15 yards from the Japanese the leading section commander, Lance-Sergeant Dawes,9 dragged in the wounded.
The Australian advance was stopped and the Japanese confidently left their holes to attack the leading section of the right-hand platoon. Dawes held his fire while about 25 Japanese charged in a bunch. At a distance of 10 yards his men opened up with small arms and grenades. The entire enemy force disappeared, killed or fleeing. A Vickers machine-gun was then placed on the left of the line to harass the Japanese position and a 3-inch mortar bombarded his rear. The Vickers bullets landed among the 2/13th Battalion until the range was dropped. Just before dusk the enemy retaliated with 40 bombs from an 81-mm mortar on the 2600 Feature. Five casualties were inflicted by the enemy mortar bringing Din-ning’s total for the day to 19 including 8 killed.
Then the rain came – a real deluge. Weapon-pits were flooded, troops soaked and equipment damaged. The area was soon a quagmire. Throughout the 4th both sides exchanged harassing fire and grenades. The Australians could now see the Japanese pill-boxes better, for the bamboo had been cut down by machine-gun fire. As the Coconut Grove position was no longer valuable, Windeyer agreed that Deschamps (2/13th) should be withdrawn. While two of Broadbent’s companies of the 2/17th remained, the other two were relieved by the two companies of the 2/24th. There was no movement during the night and, early on the 5th, a patrol found that the Japanese had vacated the whole area.
It was a scene of desolation with bodies and equipment everywhere (wrote the diarist of the 2/17th). The distance between enemy positions and those of C Company varied from 3 yards near 14 Platoon to 20 yards forward of 13 Platoon. This gives some indication of the severity of the task which C Company undertook and how well they stuck to their job. ... We were now in the pleasant position of being able to hand over the area to 2/24th Battalion clear of enemy. The work of the battalion had been of great tactical importance as the area could now be used as a base for further offensive operations against the enemy in the Sattelberg area.
The magnificent defence by the 2/17th at Jivevaneng was over. At dusk the last two companies rejoined the remainder of the battalion in the Heldsbach area. The men looked thin and drawn yet fit and full of spirit. They were wearing the same green shirts and trousers issued to them in Cairns and they had hardly had the opportunity of washing them since Milne Bay. The clothes were heavy with grease and mud and many of the men had not taken them off for the past eight days. In the New Guinea jungles in wartime dry clothes were the exception rather than the rule among the forward troops. The men were carrying very little beyond their weapons and equipment; for bedding they carried a groundsheet and blanket – and Jivevaneng had been two-blanket country.
The men joked and grinned at the sight of the YMCA “bloke” and his urn of tea and, as usual, they thought it was fine of him to have it ready. They wanted to know the “news” but actually they were well informed and had heard the latest sitreps. The 2/17th Battalion had suffered fairly heavy losses and had been living in wretched conditions of weariness, danger, wet and dirt but, no less than the men of their sister battalions who had not been under constant pressure for such a long time, their spirit of cheerfulness and patience was exemplary. “You’ll have to get us some new mates,” one private said to the brigadier who wandered among the men as they were throwing off their packs and drinking their tea, “there’s only eleven left in our platoon.”
In the northern sector of the divisional front interesting information was being collected at the observation post overlooking the Gusika-Wareo track, and now manned continuously by small patrols from the 2/43rd and the Papuan Battalion. From first light on the 5th the group had a full-time job recording the movement along the Japanese vital supply route. The procession started when one unarmed Japanese was seen travelling east and 13 with weapons hidden by capes travelling west. For the
next hour enemy were seen travelling east and west; the wounded moving towards the coast, reinforcements towards Wareo, and some appearing to be moving to the east and then returning west with stores. At 7.40 a.m. came the highlight for the unseen observers – 29 Japanese pulling to the west a gun camouflaged with bush, probably a 75-mm. The Japanese shortage of artillery in the general area was well known to the Australians, and this piece of observation was of great interest: perhaps the advent of this and other guns might presage a further Japanese attempt to regain the initiative. When this patrol was relieved at 11.40 a.m. it had observed 115 Japanese travelling west and 44 travelling east. The troops heading west had carried many heavy stores such as boxes of ammunition, tarpaulins, stretchers, an extra gun barrel, and other items.
By last light on the 6th the observers had established that most of the movement on these days was to the east by wounded – about 300 of them. As this coincided with barge traffic heard at night it seemed obvious that wounded were being concentrated for evacuation. These large numbers of unarmed Japanese presented tempting ambush targets but Colonel Simpson had decided that, although there was no harm in the artillery registering the area, an ambush, or even an attempt to capture a prisoner, might compromise the observation post.
Despite his severe losses in the counter-offensive,10 which had reduced several fighting units to below half strength, and despite his lack of air and artillery support and supply difficulties, the enemy had not abandoned his object of recapturing the Finschhafen area. General Adachi visited the divisional commander, General Katagiri, at Sattelberg at the end of October. On 3rd November, Katagiri issued another order.
“1. The enemy in the Finschhafen area, approximately the size of a division and a half, appears to consist mainly of 9th Australian Division. They have secured Finschhafen, Langemak Bay, and also Heldsbach airfield. It appears as if they are planning to control the Dampier Strait. Their front line runs along both sides of River Song. It is certain that they have secured Jivevaneng, Kumawa and Butaweng. The enemy at present is supplying its position and at the same time is trying to remove the strong pressure of [79th Regiment] north of Jivevaneng.
2. 20th Division, with the object of capturing Finschhafen, will attack locally and gradually annihilate the enemy. In order to accomplish this, a powerful force (80th Infantry Regiment) must occupy Sattelberg height quickly and make it secure. Distribute units in vital points in the rear to meet enemy landings and endeavour to protect the supply simultaneously. Main body (79th Infantry Regiment, Div HQ, Div Troops) will assemble at Nongora.”
In a preliminary plan for the capture of Sattelberg Brigadier Whitehead’s brigade major, Mackay,11 outlined on 4th November the information available to the 26th Brigade. According to this the enemy had constructed positions west of Jivevaneng in the Sisi area, and probably had sufficient strength to fight a series of delaying actions along the Sattelberg Road.
The plan continued that “Tac R and reports received from other sources indicate that the main enemy strength may be to the north of Sattelberg in the Wareo-Bonga area where he may be preparing for an attack or more likely is expecting an attack by us”. The accuracy and soundness of these forecasts were equalled by the care and attention to detail in the plan itself. It was another example of the highly intelligent and efficient planning carried out by experienced units before going into battle. The men themselves would be loath to move without knowing what it was all about; and officers and NCOs passed on the necessary information under the headings set out in Field Service Regulations: Information (enemy and our troops), Intention, Method, Administration, Intercommunication. As many of the officers in the fighting units had risen from the ranks themselves they knew what was required by the men, and from the mutual respect and admiration between men and officers of these units arose the vital cooperation and reliance on one another so essential to success.
On 6th and 7th November patrols from all three battalions of the 26th Brigade moved forward closer to the Japanese. From Kumawa Lieutenant Barrand’s12 patrol of the 2/23rd came to a derelict native garden where one Japanese was sitting near a fence. The patrol surrounded him stealthily until the patrol commander seized him and bound and gagged him. Unfortunately the prisoner managed to loosen the gag and shouted for help after the patrol had gone 70 yards on the homeward journey. When answering cries were heard near by to the north and movement to the east the patrol withdrew minus its prisoner.
It remained for the tanks to move forward to Jivevaneng. Five were moved by LCMs from Kedam Beach to Launch Jetty during the afternoon of 8th November, and, half an hour before midnight, began to move up the Sattelberg Road towards Jivevaneng in bright moonlight. The going was hard as the road was steep and the surface glassy, causing the tanks to slip, and great difficulty was experienced in rounding the two really sharp bends on the road. Two of the tanks bogged and the other three were towed to within about half a mile of Jivevaneng. On the night of 9th–10th November all nine tanks had negotiated the difficult road and were hidden in bamboo thickets east of Jivevaneng. The 26th Brigade found that from many points along the road Sattelberg could be seen, now only about 3,000 yards from the 2/48th’s forward positions. The forward slopes of Sattelberg were pitted with bomb craters, but the plateau looked a formidable fortress with its walls rising steeply from the surrounding mountains for 600 yards to the fiat open tableland about 3,200 feet above sea level.
For the next few days the fresh battalions patrolled vigorously while the bulldozers improved the road behind. On the 8th Lieutenant Gregory13
of the 2/48th led a patrol forward to White Rock where they killed 9 Japanese. Next day the White Rock position was occupied by Captain Hill’s14 company.
A company of the 2/24th moved to the high ground north of Jivevaneng where a patrol base was established to find the flanks and estimate the numbers of the Japanese in the northern sector. By last light Captain Mackenzie’s company dug in 100 yards from a Japanese position to the north. To the south the 2/23rd Battalion was also patrolling. On the 8th and 9th a patrol under Lieutenant Gilmour15 watched Japanese activity on the Sattelberg Road; early on the 9th it had an interesting few moments thus described in Gilmour’s report:
Approximately 9 Japanese moving east down road halted and prepared their breakfast within 15-20 yards of our patrol positions. Although our patrol was not expecting to see Japanese so soon, they remained unobserved. An Owen gun was accidentally fired into the ground, but the Japanese, after interrupting their conversation for a few moments, carried out no investigation. This party of Japanese remained for approximately 35 minutes; meanwhile other small parties of Japanese moved up and down the road. ... No picquet was placed by the Japanese while halted and one man moved to within 5 yards of our patrol to gather bamboo for his fire. He was unarmed.
Brigadier Whitehead called a conference at Jivevaneng on 9th November of all his unit and sub-unit commanders. These knew that west from Jivevaneng an enemy post had been located covering the road from the north side on the nearest high ground, and behind that the enemy had a strong patrol base at Steeple Tree Hill (2600 Feature).16 Whitehead’s intention was that the brigade would open the Sattelberg Road west to the Sisi Track junction. The 2/24th Battalion would be on the right along a general line from Jivevaneng to Palanko with the object of covering or overcoming the enemy at the 2200 Feature; the 2/48th in the centre along the Sattelberg Road supported by tanks and sappers; and the 2/23rd Battalion from Kumawa and Sisi on the 2/48th’s left.
For the next few days patrols from the 26th Brigade were very active against an alert enemy. On the 12th, for example, a patrol from the 2/48th penetrated as far west as Green Ridge, at the junction of the Sisi Track and the Sattelberg Road, and reported it occupied. On Melbourne Cup Day (the 13th) an American officer demonstrated the firing of the American rocket gun “Bazooka”. That day Whitehead learnt that the 2/4th Commando Squadron would be placed under his command to relieve the 2/23rd Battalion for the attack to the west. By 14th November he felt that his preparations were complete.
Meanwhile, patrols from the 24th Brigade were pushing west without contact. To the north the Japanese were found round Bonga and on Pino
Hill, a mile north of North Hill. The men of the 2/43rd Battalion believed that their Papuan comrades could veritably smell out the Japanese, so expert were they at detecting their presence. Between 9th and 11th November five native soldiers dressed as villagers penetrated north of Bonga. From an observation post they observed 340 Japanese, whose arms included 35 machine-guns, moving south to Bonga. Thirty-two armed with rifles were seen moving north to Lakona. The natives reached within 300 yards of the 2/28th’s old position but when Japanese sentries saw them and sounded an alarm they hurriedly withdrew. The men of the Papuan Battalion were now patrolling from Bonga and the Wareo Track in the north, through the Palanko and Sattelberg areas, to Mararuo, Tirimoro and Simbang. Native porters and guides attached to the battalions were also doing a vital job. After the fall of Lae one native called Pabu, whom Major Mollard had employed in Lae before the war, became Mollard’s personal boy and journeyed wherever the 2/32nd went. On 11th November Pabu led into the 2/32nd about 90 natives from the Bonga area. He and two Angau natives had just returned from a reconnaissance to the Sowi and Masaweng Rivers where they reported there were large numbers of Japanese carrying supplies south, sometimes in handcarts.
On 11th November the new corps commander, General Berryman, set out in a PT boat from Buna for Finschhafen. He was accompanied by Brigadier S. H. W. C. Porter, newly appointed to command the 24th Brigade. The new brigade commander was an impressive figure who looked the part of an infantry brigadier and had a way with troops. He had had wide experience as a battalion and brigade commander: command, briefly, of the 2/6th Battalion in Cyrenaica; command of the 2/31st during arduous operations in Syria; of the 30th Brigade which he had vigorously re-trained round Moresby in 1942 and led, in retreat and in advance, in the Papuan operations. Since the disbanding of that brigade in September 1943 he had been chief instructor at the Tactical School. Porter took over the 24th Brigade on 12th November; Simpson returned to the 2/17th Battalion next day, but on the 14th assumed command of the 20th Brigade because Windeyer was ill.
Porter found his brigade rather smarting under the implication that the battle for Scarlet Beach could have been handled better. The men were depressed and felt that the brigade had been slighted. He immediately set about his task of lifting their spirits. Both Simpson and Porter saw some weaknesses in the brigade’s administration and communications, and these Porter set out to eradicate. It did not take long for the brigade to recapture its fine spirit; its valour it had never lost.
Final arrangements for the assault on Sattelberg were now discussed by Berryman and Wootten. When Berryman asked for five days’ warning in order to coordinate the air plan with the ground attack Wootten stated that his preparations were complete. D-day was therefore fixed as 18th November but was changed on the 14th to 17th November. Berryman agreed to move the third battery of the 2/6th Field Regiment on highest priority to Finschhafen. “M” Heavy Battery and a section of the 2nd
Mountain Battery (75-mm) would also move by the fastest means to Finschhafen.
The final plan was issued by Whitehead at his headquarters on 15th November. It called for action on D-1 day when the 2/48th Battalion would capture Green Ridge, the 2/4th Commando Squadron would occupy Kumawa, and a company of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion would support the rear of the 2/48th from White Rock. On D-day there would be a simultaneous advance by all three battalions. The first intermediate objectives were the dominating 2600 Feature – Steeple Tree Hill – and the junction of the Sattelberg Road with the North-west track from Kumawa. From these positions Whitehead would decide the best route for the final assault after reconnaissance. The 2/48th Battalion would advance west along the Sattelberg Road supported initially by four tanks; the 2/23rd would advance north from Kumawa along both the North-east and northwest tracks and link with the 2/48th on the Sattelberg Road; the 2/24th would advance North-west from Jivevaneng across the Siki, capture the 2200 Feature and exploit west across the saddle and up the spur to Sattelberg.
Along the 20th Division’s supply route the PT boats were enjoying good hunting, helped by the reports from the Australian observation posts about nightly barge traffic in the vicinity of Bonga and Gusika. Two Japanese barges were probably sunk off the mouth of the Tewae River on the night of the 7th; four, laden with stores, were sunk moving south off Walingai two nights later; three more heading south laden with stores were destroyed on the following night off Ago. On the night of the 11th–12th two barges were sunk heading north with troops off Cape King William. On the 13th–14th five store-laden barges heading south were sunk at different spots – Hardenberg Point, Cape King William and Reiss Point. Off Kelanoa Point, however, four guns fired at the PT boats. Again on the night 15th–16th the PT boats were driven off by heavy fire from Cape King William after sinking two barges. On the night before D-day the PT boat commanders reported seeing much movement south along the coastal track between Sialum Island and Walingai.
Except for one battery there were now two complete artillery regiments in the area. The 2/12th Regiment less one battery would support the 26th Brigade, the 24th Battery of the 2/12th would support the 24th Brigade, and the 11th and 12th Batteries of the 2/6th Field Regiment would support the 20th and 4th Brigades respectively; if required the 24th and 11th Batteries would join in the support of the 26th Brigade.
At 8.20 on the morning of the 16th two batteries and the company of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion opened up on the near portion of Green Ridge-Near Feature. Under cover of this bombardment Captain Isaksson’s17 company of the 2/48th moved up to the start-line and took over from a patrol. The advance began at 8.30 and five minutes later the bombardment ceased except for one battery which lifted to Far Feature. The attacking company now found what many another attacking
company had discovered in similar circumstances: they were unable to keep up to schedule and therefore take advantage of the artillery fire. Despite the fact that an elaborate sand-table model had been closely studied, the ridge seemed so narrow and the bamboos so thick that the men could advance at only a very slow rate and on a narrow front. Both Near and Far Features were not strongly held, however, the former falling at 10 a.m. and the latter at 12.45 p.m. The capture of Far Feature was aided considerably by the machine-gunners who used 26,000 rounds to keep down enemy heads and to silence some troublesome enemy machine-guns.
While Captain Brocksopp’s18 company guarded Green Ridge Isaksson’s captured White Trunk Tree at the junction of the Sattelberg Road and Sisi Track by 1.40 p.m. For the loss of 5 wounded, 3 of whom died, the 2/48th Battalion had opened the attack auspiciously by killing 18 Japanese on Green Ridge, and capturing 4 machine-guns and a mortar.
That day Whitehead’s other units prepared for the morrow. The two leading companies of the 2/24th Battalion were ready for the advance on the 2200 Feature. At Kumawa the 2/4th Commando Squadron relieved the 2/23rd Battalion. The tanks were ready for the second and third phases – the attacks on Coconut Ridge and on Steeple Tree Hill.
At first light on D-day the engines of the three tanks of Lieutenant O’Donnell’s19 troop, which were to support the 2/48th, and Major Hordern’s headquarters tank began to hum, and from 6.30 a.m. the Matildas began to rumble up to the start-line. Here Captain Morphett’s20 company was ready to lead the advance followed by Captain Hill’s. The noise of the tanks moving up was covered partly by an American rocket barrage of 35 fragmentation rocket-propelled bombs, fired from 6.30 a.m. until zero-7 a.m. Several of the rockets were duds, but those which did explode had a very lethal effect, sometimes killing within a radius of 50 yards.21
The tanks reached the start-line at the junction of the Sisi Track and Sattelberg Road with a few minutes to spare. After a short talk with Morphett, O’Donnell crossed the start-line. The formation adopted was for the troop commander in the leading tank (3-inch howitzer) to be followed at a 10-yards interval by the second tank (2-pounder), commanded by Sergeant Dudgeon,22 and the leading platoon of infantry which acted as ground protection for the tanks. Twenty yards behind this section came the third tank (2-pounder), commanded by Corporal Tomlins.23 Then followed the infantry and finally Hordern’s command tank serving also as a radio link. As the tanks left White Trunk Tree the artillery opened up on the junction of Coconut Ridge and the Sattelberg Road and continued firing for a quarter of an hour. One battery then lifted to Steeple Tree until 7.30 and the twelve Vickers guns fired on the southern end of Coconut Ridge. During the Australian barrage a few enemy shells fell on Green Ridge.
The narrow and muddy track ran along a high ridge, mostly a razorback, and through dense bamboo and jungle. The general plan was for the tanks to make contact with the enemy and blast his pill-boxes, with the infantry following close behind to protect each tank and mop up. On rounding the first bend which was just past the start-line the tanks opened fire, the first tank hosing the right-hand side and the second the left of the track. At 7.30 when the artillery ceased, a lull ensued, broken only occasionally by mortar fire. For a while there was silence except for the noise of the tanks. At the same time Captain Cudlipp’s company of the 2/23rd found Sisi unoccupied, moved north towards the Sattelberg Road and took over the defence of Green Ridge, thus freeing the 2/48th of this responsibility.
Knowing that his southern flank was secure Colonel Ainslie continued the advance. The lull did not last long, for about 50 yards up the track on the right-hand side the first opposition was encountered – a heavy machine-gun post. The first tank was unable to see it because of the upgrade and the dense jungle, but after some of the jungle had been blown away by 3-inch howitzers and 2-pounders, the third tank put the gun out of action. Actually most of the tanks’ firing was more or less blind. The infantry platoon commander supporting the tanks would give the order, “Rake with Besa area between [this tree and that].” The attack continued in a series of short bounds with the tanks firing rapidly on both sides of the road at enemy defences, mainly pill-boxes and foxholes all with strong overhead cover and sited in depth along the track. Despite his surprise, and his fear of the steel monsters, the enemy held his ground tenaciously and replied with machine-guns, mortars and grenades until literally blown out by the fire of the tanks. In the excitement of going into action after nearly two years of waiting the tank crews spent their ammunition very liberally and by 8.20 a.m., about half way to Coconut Ridge, had almost run out of ammunition for their Besa guns. The Besas had been firing in bursts of about 50 rounds when bursts of 10 would probably have done as well. Three jeeps were loaded with ammunition at Jivevaneng and sent forward. The tanks backed with great difficulty for about 60 yards to refill and the infantry went forward to protect them. Morphett’s company, which had trained with the tanks in the Salankaua Plantation, knew the tank crews and was keeping in close touch with them by using the walkie-talkies of which all the sets in the division had been allotted to the brigade.
During this delay in the centre both the 2/24th and 2/23rd Battalions continued to advance. At 7.45 a.m. Captain Harty’s24 company of the 2/24th with Captain Mackenzie’s following set out from their start-line near Siki Creek to assault the 2200 Feature. An hour later the leading platoon, after a stiff climb, cut the track leading east from the summit. The second platoon then set out at 9.20 a.m. to find the enemy’s main defences and to test his strength on the summit. Two hours later it reported finding the enemy strongly entrenched and wired in dense bamboo and jungle. South of the Sattelberg Road Major Brown’s25 company of the 2/23rd, advancing along the North-west track from Kumawa towards Steeple Tree, met no opposition until half way to its objective where it found an enemy outpost at the southern foot of the spur leading up to Steeple Tree. So stubborn was the opposition that Colonel Tucker sent a second company from Kumawa to help, and the two began a long and arduous attempt to encircle the enemy.
At 10.20 a.m., with the clouds sitting close on Sattelberg, the tanks and the 2/48th Battalion were ready to continue. “Company with tanks going well and mopping up,” signalled the 2/48th to brigade; “12 Japanese
just seen to leave foxholes on side of road and run up track. Were machine-gunned by tanks.” The weather was too thick for the bombers, however, and the air strike was cancelled except for a dive-bombing attack at 10.30 on Masangkoo. The advance continued steadily with the tanks eliminating one pocket of resistance after another. At 11.35 the 2/48th reported, “Progress very slow.” To those watching and listening behind there would be periods of silence followed by bursts of firing. Just on midday there was a fierce 15 minutes’ burst of firing by the tanks. “They’re getting some curry with their rice today,” commented one observer. The tanks and infantry were now on the forward slopes of Kunai Knoll at the southern end of Coconut Ridge.
Soon afterwards the Besa in the second tank failed with a broken piston. The third tank then moved into second position. The advance continued for about 100 yards to a kunai ridge whence the first objective – Coconut Ridge – could be seen. The tanks engaged likely enemy positions. The infantry then moved forward but found the reverse slopes still occupied. After conferring together Ainslie and Hordern decided that the tanks should advance up the track over Coconut Ridge and attack the enemy from the rear. Unfortunately, as O’Donnell’s tank reached the crest and rounded a narrow bend it struck what was at first thought to be a mine or a mortar bomb but later proved to be an unexploded 25-pounder shell. The tank’s track was blown off, thus preventing any farther advance by the others as the road was too narrow for passing. Being disabled just round the bend the first tank could not be towed out by the second. As O’Donnell’s wireless aerial had been blown away Tomlins moved his tank closer to relay messages. Taking advantage of this impasse the enemy poured in such heavy machine-gun fire that the infantry was unable to advance. One bold enemy party crept up to the two tanks attempting to grenade them. Before the gunners could depress their guns sufficiently to deal with these Japanese, one threw some explosive on to the front of Tomlins’ tank, blowing the Besa back into the turret, slightly wounding Tomlins and another member of the crew and putting the Besa and wireless out of action.
Ainslie then decided that he would press forward without the tanks. Morphett sent his reserve platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Gregory, to deal with the Japanese on the reverse slopes of Kunai Knoll. The leading section commander, Corporal Leary,26 was wounded and had his rifle smashed by enemy fire soon after the start. Despite this he crawled forward alone without weapons to within a few feet of the enemy positions and relayed back valuable information. By 4 p.m. Gregory’s men cleared the position, but the enemy was still stubbornly resisting from the northern slopes of Coconut Ridge across the Sattelberg Road.
The reserve company commander, Captain Hill, now sent Lieutenant Norton’s27 platoon round on the right flank to attack the position, but it
was unable to make any headway in the face of heavy fire and, after Norton was killed, the platoon withdrew. Hordern and Lieutenant Emmott28 then reconnoitred the area, but informed Ainslie that the rugged nature of the country would prevent the tanks moving off the road on to the northern slopes of Coconut Ridge. As the enemy position was too close to be mortared Ainslie decided that the position should be assaulted by two platoons from Hill’s company in the late afternoon.
Supported by fire from Morphett’s company and from the leading disabled tank, Lieutenant Buckley’s platoon followed by Lieutenant Robinson’s29 charged down the northern slopes of Kunai Knoll. Despite the impetus of the charge Buckley’s men were pinned down under heavy fire about 15 yards north of the road and Robinson’s farther back. Corporal Radbone’s30 section on the left, however, succeeded in reaching its objective and killed 19 Japanese. Notwithstanding this fine effort, Buckley sent back a runner reporting that the position was too strong for two platoons, and that it was hopeless to continue the attack along the narrow razor-back ridge littered with boughs of trees torn off by the artillery. The platoons were therefore withdrawn and the battalion reorganised for the night with two companies on Kunai Knoll and a third back along the track towards White Trunk Tree, where the fourth company was stationed.
As the 2/24th and 2/23rd Battalions had been unable to advance beyond the positions reached in the morning, both formed perimeters at nightfall – the 2/24th Battalion east of the 2200 Feature and the 2/23rd Battalion half way along the track from Kumawa. It seemed evident that there would be plenty of fierce fighting before Sattelberg could be reached; the Japanese had defended resolutely all day and had not panicked when the tanks suddenly rumbled upon them.
A perimeter was formed around O’Donnell’s scarred and disabled tank. He and his crew had been closed inside for about eight hours before being able to get out through the driver’s hatch. They took with them the breech-blocks of the 3-inch howitzer, the Besa and their Bren and Owen guns. During the day the tanks had fired 120 rounds of 3-inch howitzer shells, 11,700 rounds of Besa and 234 rounds of 2-pounder ammunition.
Just before last light an enemy gun shelled White Rock from Steeple Tree. The 30 shells fired caused some casualties. In the early days of the Jivevaneng fighting White Rock had been covered with bananas and secondary growth, but now, because it had received such a bombardment from both sides, it was bare grey earth with many doovers31 built in the reverse slopes. Fortunately the men at the machine-gunners’ observation
post spotted the enemy gun. Such a bombardment was then directed at this area by the 62nd Battery that the gun did not fire again that day.
At 7.10 a.m. on the 18th a patrol edged forward from the disabled tanks and reported no signs of the enemy on Coconut Ridge. Since progress by the tanks was still barred by the one with the broken track, Morphett decided to send Gregory’s platoon into the attack without tanks. At 8.30 the platoon advanced the 200 yards towards where the enemy position had been seen and, as anticipated, found the area abandoned. All efforts were now bent towards getting the Matildas ready. Hordern ordered forward two 2-pounder tanks and one 3-inch howitzer tank to aid the tanks already committed. Two tanks clambered on to Coconut Ridge to help the infantry with the mopping up. Soon after midday the two disabled tanks had been repaired.
In front of the two companies of the 2/23rd on the track from Kumawa to Steeple Tree there had been no withdrawal by the enemy during the night. Tucker sent Lieutenant Gray’s32 company in an encircling movement round the left flank and by 10.55 it reached one of the tracks leading west to Mararuo, and, by thus threatening the enemy’s rear, forced a small withdrawal. Major Brown’s men then advanced, but progress was slow and tedious as the Japanese continually withdrew to positions slightly higher up the spur, which fell away sharply on either side. At 12.25 p.m., when the leading men of the 2/23rd thought that they were about 400 yards from the Sattelberg Road, Tucker was warned that the 2/48th would resume the advance in 25 minutes.
At 1 p.m. O’Donnell’s troop of tanks and Isaksson’s company of the 2/48th moved off. Thirty-five minutes later they met the first opposition for the day from an entrenched and camouflaged enemy position on a high feature north of the track. After engineers had cut away part of the steep bank one Matilda succeeded in reaching the top, and, against desperate opposition, cleared the ground immediately ahead. By 2 p.m. the battalion had advanced about 250 yards after striking opposition on both sides of the road. A small feature some 30 yards ahead of the first obstacle, however, could not be taken. Despite the blasting of the tanks which had already knocked out two 37-mm guns, the Australians could not dislodge the Japanese from this feature. At 2.50 p.m. an enemy 75-mm gun began shelling Green Ridge again, and mortally wounded Captain Cudlipp before an intense Australian bombardment caused the Japanese gun to cease fire.
During the fighting enemy tree snipers were active, but towards last light the sun shone behind the trees in which they were concealed. The Australians then had pleasure in picking them off and six were shot down before darkness. The forward troops were withdrawn slightly for the night and the seven tanks leaguered at Coconut Ridge.
Colonel Tucker concluded that the enemy opposing the advance of the 2/23rd were part of the same defensive system that was holding up the
2/48th. He therefore sent Gray’s company in a second wide encircling movement, this time to cut the main Sattelberg Road, and at 5.30 p.m., after moving 600 yards to the North-west, Gray reported cutting the main road west of Steeple Tree. Actually he had only reached another better-defined track to Mararuo, but this was not then known. The fog of war descended when his telephone line was cut, and a patrol from Brown’s company ran into a force of about 40 Japanese “rallying between the two companies”.
To those in command it appeared that if Gray’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion had in fact cut the Sattelberg Road, there would be a distinct possibility of squeezing out the Japanese at Steeple Tree. Indeed, in the two hours before midnight on 18th November the signal lines were humming with orders for the 19th. In Whitehead’s original operation order the task of the 2/24th Battalion was to hold a firm base covering the route to be used for the advance of two companies to secure contour 2200. After studying the latest sitreps at night on the 18th, General Wootten, soon after 10 p.m., ordered Whitehead to “drive to Sattelberg via 2200”. Thus, the attack on Sattelberg would now be double-pronged. Just before midnight Mackay told Tucker of the “change in plot” and warned him that his reserve companies at Kumawa and Green Ridge might be needed on the 19th to “exploit success of the 2/24th Battalion and possibly pass through to Sattelberg”.
During the night 18th–19th November, the 2/48th and the Japanese, about 30 yards apart, engaged in grenade and small arms duels. By 8 a.m. on the 19th new crews were in the forward tanks and the advance recommenced with two tanks on the high ground just north of the main road and a third moving along the road. Isaksson’s company was again leading. Forty minutes later the small knoll ahead was cleared without much opposition. Leaving the dead Japanese where they lay, the tanks rumbled on with the green-clad infantrymen following. The speed with which the Japanese were organising anti-tank measures was impressive. About 100 yards from the start-line the advance was halted by an antitank ditch six feet wide and four feet deep. With the aid of Major Moodie’s33 engineers of the 2/13th Field Company the tanks were soon able to bypass the ditch, beyond which was a 37-mm gun knocked out by the Australian artillery. Beside the derelict gun lay three dead Japanese. A little farther along the road the tanks overran an 81-mm mortar position, and farther still they knocked out a Woodpecker and two light machine-guns. A second anti-tank ditch was encountered another 150 yards along the road soon after 10 a.m. Here there was some delay while the sappers filled and corduroyed the ditch. With progress so slow Wootten now became a little restive. At 11.10 a.m. Whitehead passed on to Ainslie that Wootten considered that “tanks might be holding battalion up and suggests that if this is so they be taken away”.
Lieutenant Farquhar’s34 platoon was sent past the tanks and met an enemy position solidly dug in on the slope of a large feature at the bend in the Sattelberg Road just before Steeple Tree. Heavy fire pinned down Farquhar’s men who were glad to see the tanks coming forward again. No sooner had they joined up, however, than another anti-tank ditch was found astride the road and the infantry again moved forward alone, only to be pinned down once more. While patrols from the two leading companies tried to move around the left and right flanks, the engineers studied the ditch and its immediate environment. Ahead of the ditch were some suspicious-looking mounds which were soon found to contain mines. Prepared charges with strings attached for pulling them under the tanks were found in dug-outs on both sides of the road and three mines were deloused.35
Soon after midday divisional headquarters sent a few questions to Whitehead: When was contact with the enemy lost by the 2/48th Battalion? Has the 2/48th moved forward since then and if so how far? If they have not pushed on, why? Are the infantry waiting for the tanks? Whitehead’s reply was short and laconic. “Contact was never lost,” he replied to the first question; “Yes, 300 yards,” to the second; and “No” to the fourth. When the questions reached Ainslie in the thick of battle, his remarks to Whitehead were in the same vein: “Cost would have been very large if tanks were not there. Division do not understand nature of terrain.” One other battalion commander considered that in these operations the general staff officers of the division should have seen the ground more often despite the long time it took to get there and back.
Every attempt made by Isaksson’s and Brocksopp’s companies to outflank the enemy failed because of the enemy’s skilful placing of machine-guns on the flanks. By 1 p.m. the hard work of the 2/13th Field Company enabled two tanks to cross the ditch, move forward, and “clean up” another 37-mm gun. One of the tanks was hit by this gun but the damage was soon repaired. In their advance, however, the two tanks broke away the side of the road and were in danger of slipping down the steep left-hand side of the hill. Quickly using hand tools the sappers prevented such a disaster.36 There was now some delay while jeeps replenished the 2/48th’s ammunition and the engineers cut another track higher up the hillside for the tanks to outflank the objective. As the afternoon went on, however, it became apparent that the tanks would not be able to reach the top
of the feature. Lieutenant Spry37 of the 2/13th Field Company was now instructed to prepare two fougasses. Filling two 4-gallon drums with petrol and dieseline Spry hoped that the fougasse would burn for about five minutes.
At 5.45 p.m. Spry fired electrically the first fougasse used in New Guinea. The drums burst and a large pall of smoke and flame shot forward about 20 feet high over the enemy position 30 yards away. Unfortunately the flame lasted but an instant, so that by the time the infantry arrived at the spot whence they had withdrawn the smoke had disappeared.
The enemy was obviously shaken, however, and this enabled Lieutenant Barry’s38 platoon to do the only practical thing in the circumstances – charge up the hill. Many times in this campaign it had been proved that courage and determination could do what armour and bombardment had failed to do. So it was now. According to the diarist of the 2/48th “the men advanced across the ground shoulder to shoulder, with Bren and Owen guns blazing from the hip and the riflemen hurling grenades”. “We ran in with a Ho, Ho, Ho” said one participant later. Lieutenant McKinnon’s39 platoon moved forward on the right flank. Stunned by the suddenness of the fougasse and the power of Barry’s attack the enemy wavered. The Australians reached the top and in hand-to-hand fighting drove the enemy out. During this brave and successful advance all available men not in the actual fight, including the ubiquitous sappers, were busy filling Bren and Owen magazines and priming grenades. Just on last light the Japanese counter-attacked, but a position captured with such spirit was not likely to be yielded easily. Nevertheless, the fire from a tank as well as from engineers and headquarters was needed to drive the counterattack back down the steep slope of Fougasse Corner up which it had surged. During the day the 2/48th suffered 20 casualties, including 4 killed, and killed 46 Japanese as well as capturing 7 machine-guns and 5 mortars.
Just to the south the 2/23rd was also meeting vigorous opposition. Gray’s company spent an uncomfortable, isolated night on the 18th–19th with the enemy on three sides. Gray still believed he was on the main road, but because he had few stores and was out of communication, he decided to withdraw, and after a rugged four-hours journey, rejoined the supporting company.
To the north also little progress had been made by the 2/24th Battalion on the 19th. After artillery bombardment Lieutenant Caple’s40 platoon was able, unopposed, to occupy a knoll near the summit of the 2200 Feature. Another platoon then began an encircling movement to the west but withdrew after heavy enemy fire and bamboo – rendered an
impenetrable tangled mass by the artillery – prevented any progress. Skirmishing continued until 2.30 p.m. when the remainder of the company joined Caple’s platoon on the knoll. When the battalion’s own 2-inch mortars dropped short on the knoll the battalion lost one man killed and 10 wounded, to add to an identical number of other casualties suffered during the day.
Resting from its labours the 20th Brigade played no part in the Sattelberg campaign except for routine patrolling and for one patrol in particular. On 16th November Colonel Grace informed Major Newcomb of the 2/15th that “in conjunction with the opening of the attack towards Sattelberg ... you are to command a diversionary force” in order to “broaden the apparent front of the attack on Sattelberg by simulating a new threat towards Wareo”. Newcomb was not, however, to move beyond Garabow or become embroiled in a serious fight. He set out early on the 17th and camped in the kunai near the Song. On the 18th the company reached Garabow which had been accurately bombed, although there were no signs of recent occupation. Next day, while the 26th Brigade was inching forward against dogged resistance in the south, Lieutenant Roberts41 led a patrol to the 1800 Feature North-west of Garabow, where he saw and heard Japanese.
From the detailed reports of the 2/43rd’s observation post it seemed clear to Brigadier Porter that the enemy was sending out large parties to the coast, presumably to carry in supplies. If a strong position could be seized astride the track, the enemy’s main supply line could be cut and his grip loosened on Sattelberg and Wareo. On 15th November Porter was called to divisional headquarters by Wootten to discuss future operations.
General Wootten indicated that we were to advance from North Hill to the Lakes as a first stage; and suggested that we should take a direct route (wrote Porter later). Subsequently, we were to advance to Wareo. I had been studying the terrain astride the Bonga-Wareo track, u8ing air photos and stereoscope. I was keen to seize the feature which was subsequently named Pabu, and to clear an L of C between it and our present positions before venturing through the defile at the Lakes. The terrain which lay along a direct line from the mouth of the Song to the Lakes was very rough, and not really suitable for an L of C. I favoured the capture of Pino, and an extension of our L of C through North Hill. This appealed to me for tactical as well as engineering reasons.
At first the General was inclined to favour bypassing all features north of North Hill, and making straight for the Lakes. He compromised, however, and agreed with my plan for seizing Pabu before pressing westward.
I was aware that the enemy would react violently to our occupation of Pabu; and plans were made to ring the area with artillery defensive fire tasks.
On the 16th Porter, accompanied by his brigade major, White,42 and Major Mollard (administering command of the 2/32nd), reconnoitred his northern area from North Hill. It was obvious that the 24th Brigade’s task when the time came would be against the Wareo-Gusika ridge. Porter
and his staff had already noted from aerial photographs a dominating feature on this ridge near the observation post of the 2/43rd Battalion and the Papuan Battalion. “What shall we call it?” said the brigadier to his companions. Several names were suggested and all were turned down. “What’s your name?” said the brigadier then to Mollard’s personal boy. “Pabu,” he replied, and so Porter named the feature Pabu Hill – usually shortened to Pabu.
In wartime remote features, nameless in peacetime, sometimes had names bestowed upon them by the troops who fought there. Often unknown beforehand and unregarded afterwards, these distant spots, for a fierce moment of time, were the scenes of some of the nation’s grandest military exploits. Porter gazed at the aerial photographs of the Gusika-Wareo ridge. Along the track were large kunai patches and these, outlined against the jungle on all sides, looked something like the gangling horse created by Walt Disney. Hence the kunai area, where Porter rightly deduced there would be much fighting, became known as Horace the Horse.
On 18th November Porter was warned that, in addition to holding North Hill, Scarlet Beach and the high ground west of Katika, his brigade would capture with one battalion the high ground at Pabu and control all tracks in the area as far west as the Lakes. The newly-arrived 2/7th Field Company would construct a jeep track to follow the battalion (the 2/32nd was chosen). Until the completion of the track, 150 native carriers were allotted for maintenance. The 2/32nd Battalion (less a company) set out for Pabu on the afternoon of the 19th. As the men were carrying very heavy loads of up to 80 pounds each, Mollard had decided to stage for the night at a creek crossing about a mile from Pabu.
Early on the morning of 20th November reconnaissance patrols from the 2/48th were probing the track ahead of Fougasse Corner. By 9 a.m., when Captain Hill’s company was ready to resume the advance, a patrol had heard the Japanese digging about 140 yards ahead. “Country opens out here,” signalled battalion to brigade, “so tanks should have a good time later.” “Thank God it’s keeping dry,” said one soldier, “if it rains it’ll stop the tanks.” Unfortunately Hill’s advance had to begin without the tanks as the two leading Matildas half slipped off the narrow road cut into the cliff at Fougasse Corner. The sappers of the 2/13th Field Company now had the task of digging out the tanks and building up the road at the corner, a task which was not finished until 5.30 p.m. Under the track of one of these tanks Sergeant Mellor43 disarmed a charge which fortunately had not exploded when the tank slipped. Typical of the spirit of the 2/13th Field Company was Sapper Daniell44 who had been wounded when acting as a runner on the previous day but who had requested to stay on the job. On the 20th he was killed in action.
Hill’s men, leaving the tanks, advanced through very difficult country. The diarist of the 2/48th Battalion wrote that
some idea of the difficult nature of the country can be gained from the fact that it had taken B Company one hour fifty minutes to traverse 250 yards. Except for the narrow track the area was a mass of thick bamboo, impossible to penetrate except by crawling on hands and knees.
By 9.30 a.m. other tanks managed to bypass the stranded two and caught up with Hill’s men. To the south the two companies of the 2/23rd were still trying to drive out the enemy from the southern approaches to Steeple Tree Hill. Colonel Tucker was now mainly concerned with establishing just where his two forward companies were, and he arranged for smoke signals. A patrol from the 2/23rd moved east and then north to join the 2/48th.
“Go ahead as fast as possible,” Whitehead ordered Ainslie just on 10 a.m. Fifty minutes later Hill’s men skirmished with the first enemy positions. Here the ground was slightly clearer, and impatient higher formations were informed that “contact drill” was being applied. The enemy held very strong positions right up to the 2,600-foot Steeple Tree Hill. His system of defence was to site positions at every possible line of approach to the almost impenetrable bamboo but not to fire until the forward troops were only a few yards away. Although the enemy was not holding any one position in great strength it would have required a major operation for the infantry to drive him out without the aid of the tanks.
“Pushing ahead very slowly. Gaining a little ground,” reported the 2/48th at 3 p.m. Half an hour later its report stated: “Getting along up ridge, tanks on ridge. Good progress.” So the slugging battle proceeded, usually with one platoon supporting the attacking tanks and another going round the flank. The enemy then invariably withdrew unless he was overrun first. The progress was still not rapid because when the tanks moved off the road into the thick bamboo they were blind and had to be guided every yard of the way.
At 4.40 p.m. the battalion reported: “Now almost at the top of Steeple Tree. Making rather slow progress. Very heavy going. They are having to cut their way all the time, but are still going.” It was not until 6.35 p.m. that the 2/48th was able to report the capture of Steeple Tree. Once again the battalion dug in in semi-darkness. Ainslie was informed that he was responsible for the protection of Hordern’s tanks, then outside the perimeter.
For most of the day the 2/23rd had been awaiting the result of the patrol sent to make contact with the 2/48th. By 2.25 p.m. Tucker reported that the patrol had met Morphett’s company of the 2/48th. At 4 p.m. a mortar bombardment preceded an attack by Brown’s men up the slope towards Steeple Hill from the south. The Japanese defended stubbornly but were gradually forced back. An hour later Tucker reported that Brown’s company was approximately 300 yards away from the 2/48th, but the 2/23rd could not dislodge the small party of Japanese between
it and the 2/48th before night. On the 20th the 2/48th lost 2 killed and 15 wounded.
The 2/24th Battalion was unable to make any progress on the 20th. This was a disappointment for it had seemed at one stage that an attack on Sattelberg through the 2200 Feature would be more profitable than along the road itself. Strong Japanese defences, thick bamboo and precipitous slopes were largely responsible for this lack of progress. In an attempt to force the pace Wootten decided to commit another troop of tanks to assist the 2/24th, but it would be some time before the Matildas could climb the 2200 Feature.
By first light on the 21st patrols from the 2/48th and 2/23rd were probing forward. On a small knoll ahead of Steeple Tree was a small Japanese party which could not be mortared because of the nearness of the 2/23rd. A fighting patrol from the 2/48th was about to move out to deal with this position, when a number of “Ho, Ho’s” were heard and the leading sections of the 2/23rd appeared south of the road. Guided by the patrol which made contact with the 2/48th Battalion on the 20th, Brown’s men had advanced about 900 yards without opposition.
Led by Captain Isaksson’s company the 2/48th Battalion then continued the advance while the 2/23rd prepared to send patrols west to investigate the tracks towards Mararuo in the hope of bypassing the next enemy positions on the Sattelberg Road. Brown’s company met no opposition in this task and was able to advance 1,500 yards. Similarly the 2/48th Battalion met little opposition.
At first fully completed defensive positions were found, that is, dug positions camouflaged and with head cover (wrote the battalion diarist); then positions with head cover cut but not placed in position; then positions dug with no head cover; then positions only partly dug. As, however, the whole of the ridge except the track was covered with dense bamboo, all these positions had to be investigated and it was not until 1300 hours that contact was made approximately 700 yards from the  Feature. The Japanese, however, on this occasion showed no inclination to stand and fight as on previous days.
This party of about 15 Japanese fled leaving their equipment soon after the leading platoon attacked. Near by a hospital area was discovered. Large numbers of wounded had apparently passed through recently and there were large multiple graves.
After the constant tension of the past five days when the enemy had fought hard for every tactical feature on the road, it was a relief for the 2/48th to find no opposition ahead. It seemed that Whitehead’s assumption that Steeple Tree Hill was the main Japanese defensive position before Sattelberg was correct. Now that this line was broken Ainslie sent Brocksopp’s company through Isaksson’s in single file straight up the road without making any attempt to clear the ground on either side. This bold policy enabled the battalion to advance rapidly, leaving the tanks behind.
Brocksopp’s company had almost reached the first hairpin bend at 4.35 p.m. when enemy machine-guns opened up at point-blank range. Mortar and tank support was immediately requested and three tanks lumbered
up and pounded the enemy positions. At 7.20 p.m. Lieutenant Lewin’s platoon assaulted the position and captured it. For the fifth successive night the 2/48th then reorganised in darkness, but the practical planning of the battalion staff, led by Major Batten45 the second-in-command, ensured that water, ammunition and rations were rapidly carried forward. With contact established between the 2/48th and 2/23rd Battalions Tucker moved his headquarters and reserve company up the Sisi Track to the road and thence along the road to Steeple Tree.
Again on the 21st there was little progress in the difficult and frustrating area confronting the 2/24th Battalion. The Japanese remained in position despite an arduous left flanking move by Captain Bieri’s46 company. At 9.20 a.m. Colonel Gillespie reported to brigade, “Party in contact, some firing but he is very hard to get at.” This enemy opposition was a patrol and was brushed aside by Bieri’s men who continued their laborious trek until, by the late afternoon, they were almost on the saddle connecting the 2200 Feature with Sattelberg.
Meanwhile, what of the 2/32nd Battalion which had reached the creek south of Pabu on the night of the 19th? “We were destined to be unbelievably fortunate,” wrote Mollard later, “as we not only avoided all Japanese forces on the approach march, but after a short artillery concentration, were able to take possession of Pabu Hill with no casualties to ourselves.”
Part of the battalion’s success in advancing so far without detection or arousing the enemy’s suspicion had been due to two natives whose remarkable eyesight helped the Australian scouts to move with certainty and reasonable speed. Soon after 2 p.m. on the 20th the battalion had advanced on the heels of an artillery bombardment, directed by Captain Mollison,47 and without opposition the two forward companies occupied Pabu. An almost identical feature 300 yards away turned out to be heavily guarded. In its advance to Pabu the 2/32nd had passed under the very noses of the Japanese there.
Captain Walker’s company was now on the northern and eastern sides of Pabu, Captain Davidson’s on the west and Captain Davies’ on the south. Mollard also had a section of 3-inch mortars and a section of Vickers guns on the feature. The battalion set fire to the surrounding kunai with tracer fire because it might afford cover to the enemy and large areas were still burning fiercely when the native carrier party arrived with water, ammunition and rations. The smoke screened the carriers and subsequently the defenders had a good view over the ground leading to their defences. Already it was evident to Mollard that water would be a main problem as there was no water on Pabu. Each man had started out with only a water-bottle full, plus a two-gallon tin for every seven men as a reserve. The men were exhausted and dehydrated after their hard day
and the doctor recommended that some of the precious supply be used. Just before dusk the Vickers guns accounted for 12 Japanese walking down the track towards the coast. As night fell and the grass fire burnt itself out the battalion was left in occupation of a “jungle island surrounded by open spaces somewhat like the old familiar desert”.
Next morning two patrols were sent out from Davies’ company. Lieutenant Bell’s48 platoon patrolled towards Exchange and observed considerable enemy movement there. More important, however, they found good water in a creek and the battalion replenished its supply. Lieutenant Keley’s49 platoon to the west, keeping mainly to the jungle on the right side of the track, found large numbers of Japanese about 500 yards west, and inflicted three casualties before withdrawing.
On the 22nd Davies’ company, temporarily under the command of Lieutenant Keley as Davies was sick, was sent by Mollard to investigate the prominent feature overlooking Pabu from the west and to harass any enemy there. The men (about 60) moved off at 8.30 a.m. led by two native guides. They marched south into the jungle and from there worked their tedious way over rugged spurs intersected by deep ravines. About noon they came upon a well-defined track running north and south. As the guides seemed to sense Japanese in the area Keley paused and presently “three sons of Nippon armed with rifles sauntered down the track from the north and were unceremoniously dispatched to their forefathers”. Keley pushed on and at 4 p.m. emerged from the jungle into an extensive kunai patch – Horace’s Hoof. Fifteen minutes later the company moved into the foreleg and with the main east-west track only 200 yards distant “it seemed guineas to gooseberries (said the company’s report) that the game would soon be on for us”.
About 5.30 p.m. two Japanese signallers were seen on the main track running out wire towards Wareo. They were allowed to pass, as Keley scented bigger game. Ten minutes later about a company of Japanese
appeared. Just as the Australians were about to open fire the Japanese saw them and dived for cover into a tongue of jungle on Keley’s left whence they returned the fire. Keley lost no time in calling for mortar support and very soon bombs were landing among the Japanese. A Japanese mortar, replying from the Wareo area, also landed its bombs among the Japanese.
It was now last light and the Japanese were digging in about 100 yards away. Realising the danger of remaining in this exposed position, and encumbered by wounded, Keley obtained Mollard’s permission to withdraw. The company snatched some fitful rest before setting out on what all realised would be an arduous and testing withdrawal.
During the afternoon, while Keley’s patrol was on the move, several enemy carrying parties tried to use the main track past Pabu. Mollard allowed them to come within about 250 yards before opening fire; about 40 were hit. A native carrier line from the south also arrived at this time bringing ammunition and rations. As he anticipated a long and savage fight, Mollard warned his men to conserve their ammunition. That day Mollison registered all possible artillery targets in the area. At 9 p.m. the telephone wire between Pabu and brigade was cut.
From the 19th onward the 2/28th Battalion’s patrol activity from the Song-Katika-Scarlet Beach area increased considerably and standing patrols were established on both banks of the Song, at Stinker, Pong, Smell, Whiff and High respectively – these places being so named because of the undiscovered and therefore unburied Japanese dead.
Since early November when its invaluable observation post had been established overlooking the Wareo-Gusika track, the 2/43rd Battalion from the North Hill-Song area had enjoyed a period of relative calm and routine patrolling against little opposition, but its activity also increased after 19th November when a patrol heard Japanese calling out to one another near Bonga and soon after saw 30 of them on the main track. Next day Lieutenant Wright50 led a larger patrol north along the coastal track. About half a mile south of Bonga the Papuan scouts with the South Australians were fired on. Whistles and noises of Japanese running and calling out were heard on all sides as the patrol withdrew. After Wright had gone some distance south to report to Colonel Joshua on the telephone, a Papuan scout pointed out about 100 Japanese moving south. While on the phone Wright saw his men dive for cover and immediately rushed back to take charge. The patrol then withdrew rapidly into dead ground on the south side of Pino Hill. On the 21st the Japanese were even more aggressive on the 2/43rd’s front. Three of Joshua’s companies were situated from North Hill to the Song; the fourth – Captain Gordon’s – was guarding the coastal track approximately level with the most southern of the other three companies. In the late afternoon there were several clashes in Gordon’s area.
On the evening of 21st November Wootten surveyed the situation with mixed feelings. On his main battle front, along the Sattelberg Road, the preliminary line of Japanese resistance had been broken at Steeple Tree, and Whitehead was issuing his orders for the next phase--Sattelberg itself. To the north the sudden thrust of the 2/32nd Battalion to Pabu looked like being even more of a master stroke than when it had been originally conceived primarily to disrupt the enemy’s main supply route to Wareo and Sattelberg. The Japanese had not yet presented the Australians with their operation order, but it was clear from evidence gained in the past two days that General Katagiri was about to launch another counter-attack.