Chapter 23: The Wareo–Gusika Advance
ON the 25th General Berryman discussed with General Wootten the possibility that the Japanese might withdraw from the Gusika-Wareo spur, and urged him to begin the drive north along the coast as soon as possible in order to cut the Japanese lines of withdrawal. Wootten understood the anxiety of the higher commanders that the east coast of New Guinea should be cleared before the American assault on New Britain. Nevertheless his operation order, issued on 26th November, contained no reference to a coastal advance. Twice since the landing at Scarlet Beach the 9th Division, when spread out along the coast, had been vigorously counter-attacked by an enemy pushing eastward from an inland base, and on the first occasion disaster had been very close. Although he knew that the 20th Division was doomed Wootten had had enough experience of the fighting powers of the Japanese at bay to know that, even during retreat, they might damage an Australian coastal advance by attacking towards the sea behind the point reached by the Australians, and thus isolating them. He therefore decided to clear the Wareo-Gusika ridge, or at least control most of it, before setting off along the coast. Berryman grumbled that this “desire to over insure may take some of the dash out of his [Wootten’s] drive”. He was a good enough commander himself, though, to respect Wootten’s experience and judgment and not to interfere unduly with the man on the job.
Thus, on 26th November, Wootten ordered that the 24th Brigade would capture the area from Gusika to the Lakes, the 20th Brigade would seize Nongora and Christmas Hills and exploit to Wareo, and the 26th Brigade would exploit north from Sattelberg to Wareo. The 4th Brigade would guard the Scarlet Beach and Heldsbach area. Berryman had already made plans to send native labour forward from Lae to release working parties from the 4th Brigade which would then be available for a coastal advance.
It will be recalled that Brigadier Porter had decided to open a shorter line of communication to the two isolated companies of the 2/32nd Battalion on Pabu, and that the simplest route would be via Pino Hill which was occupied by the enemy. In any case the enemy must be cleared from Pino Hill before the attack on the Gusika-Wareo line could be launched. Colonel Scott of the 2/32nd was ordered to capture this feature. His striking force would be his other two companies and four tanks under Lieutenant Watson.1 The attack was to open at 8.30 a.m. on the 26th. Scott planned that Captain Lancaster’s company on the right would capture Pino Hill itself and Captain Davidson’s, on the left, occupy the jungle fringe. Two tanks would assist each company.
Three hours before this force set out from North Hill the other two companies of the 2/32nd faced the fiercest enemy assault since the
occupation of Pabu. At 6 a.m. two Japanese 75-mm guns, firing from less than 1,000 yards, and mortars bombarded Pabu. Constant losses caused by shelling and bombing had been perhaps the most serious problem confronting Mollard and the two medical officers in the area. The men were well dug in with overhead cover but would not remain cramped in these shelters, particularly if a wounded comrade called. Sergeant Robino2 in charge of the stretcher bearers was just such a man. Throughout the Pabu campaign he had gone to the assistance of the wounded wherever they were lying. On this day he dressed the wounds of one man in full view of the enemy. While his comrades shouted to him to jump into a slit trench, and while shells and mortar bombs were exploding in the trees above him, he calmly splinted a compound fracture of a leg and carried the patient to cover. With such men within the Pabu perimeter it was no wonder that the vital position was held against such odds.
Under cover of the shelling the enemy attempted to infiltrate from North-west and South-west into the area held by Lieutenant Keley’s company on Pabu. The enemy fire cut to pieces a large tree on the battalion’s observation post on a rocky outcrop about 6 feet high. Private Saaby,3 although wounded, remained at his post in a weapon-pit in an exposed position at the observation post whence he could see the advancing Japanese. Removing the pins from grenades, he waited for two seconds and then dropped them among the enemy who had crawled up and were sheltering below him.
The 2/12th Field Regiment rapidly ringed Pabu with shells. Documents captured later proved that the desperate enemy had planned an assault on Pabu by companies of the I and III Battalions of the 79th Regiment from three directions in an attempt to reopen the Gusika-Wareo track. The Australian shelling broke up the attack from the east and disorganised the one from the south. The attacks lasted for about two hours and a half. Well-dug positions enabled Keley’s company to repulse them all, even though some of the Japanese pressed near enough to be killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The company suffered 20 casualties including 3 killed. Lieutenant Bell, whose platoon withstood most of the enemy assaults, and Keley himself were both wounded.
Help was at hand for the beleaguered companies. Scott’s start time was delayed half an hour until 9 a.m., by which time the enemy had been bombarded with 2,360 shells. Pino Hill was jungle clad and the approaches to it lay up a steep slope covered mainly in short kunai interspersed with clumps of jungle. Assisted by a platoon of the 2/7th Field Company, the four Matildas advanced in pairs through the kunai covered by the infantry companies and Papuan patrols moving along the jungle fringes. By 9.25 a.m. the tanks were on Pino Hill and half an hour later it was occupied, the enemy having abandoned his extensive positions before the arrival
of the tanks. Four snipers and one python were destroyed by the American rocket machine and two machine-gun posts by the tanks.
At 10.30 a.m. Captain Richmond’s company of the 2/43rd Battalion was ordered to move to Pino Hill to relieve Lancaster’s, which would then march to Pabu and relieve Keley’s battered company. At 11.45 a.m., and again at 1 p.m. when the two companies were changing over on Pino Hill, Japanese guns shelled the feature causing 25 casualties including 3 killed. Lancaster and one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant E. A. G. Smith, were wounded. Despite this misfortune the company set out at 2.15 p.m. across open kunai country to Pabu. To speed the advance two Matildas carried out a diversion on the left flank, and in doing so destroyed two machine-gun nests. The company arrived at Pabu at 4 p.m. and, half an hour later, Keley’s departed for Pino Hill escorting 6 stretcher cases and 19 walking wounded and sick. Jeeps drove into the kunai as far as they could to meet the cavalcade. By 7.30 p.m. it reached Pino; at the same time the telephone line to Pabu was cut again.
By 27th November Wootten’s plan for a three-brigade attack on the Gusika-Wareo ridge was ready to begin. On this day, however, Berryman, Wootten and Whitehead visited Sattelberg and the 3200 Feature. Looking at the rugged country towards Wareo through which ran the precipitous valley of the Song, and thinking of the effort which would be needed to supply the 26th Brigade alone, Berryman considered that it would be unwise to commit the 20th Brigade in the centre, and another outline plan was decided upon for a two-pronged attack by the 26th and 24th Brigades on Wareo and the Gusika-Wareo ridge respectively. Whereas hitherto the general opinion had been that the enemy had important inland supply routes in addition to the coastal route, a special staff created at corps headquarters to study the enemy’s supply system had now reached the conclusion that he really depended on the coastal route. For this reason the 20th Brigade was re-allotted to support the coastal thrust.
For some time natives had reported that the Japanese were in the rich and populous Kulungtufu district, and later reports suggested that these were convalescents from the Sattelberg-Wareo area and not fugitives from Lae as originally thought. They were collecting vegetables from native gardens for transport twice a week by a native carrier line to Wareo. Kulungtufu and its supply routes now became important targets for bombing and strafing. For instance, Kulungtufu was attacked on two successive days-19th and 20th November – by 27 and 32 planes respectively.
Aircraft and PT boats had continued their ravages during and since the Sattelberg operation. Besides giving close support to the army and bombing enemy airfields, Allied aircraft had bombed barges between Cape Gloucester and Rein Bay on 19th November and on most other days barge hunts and strafing attacks on suspected hideouts and the coastal track had been organised. In the ten nights from the opening of the Sattelberg campaign the PT boats had destroyed a barge near Sialum on the 16th–17th, and attacked three others off Hardenberg Point on the next night. Four nights later six heavily laden barges southward bound
were sunk – three off Sio and three off Blucher Point. Two more were sunk on the 23rd–24th off Hardenberg Point, two on the 24th–25th near Sialum, and four off Annen Point on the 26th–27th. All these barges were going south laden with stores or troops. The Japanese attempted to drive off the PT boats by setting up guns along the coast, and by mid-November 13 guns had been identified between Vincke Point and Bonga, but only once had they been able to protect the barges successfully. This constant gnawing at the Japanese vitals had its effects. The Japanese still fought savagely against the 9th Division but the end seemed now only a matter of time. Although not yet starving they were very hungry.
The Japanese force in the coastal area comprised the II/238th Battalion, part of the II/79th Battalion and part of the 26th Field Artillery Regiment. To the west, from the Pabu area to the Lakes and Nongora area, was the remainder of the 79th Regiment and the 26th Field Artillery Regiment. Attached to the 79th Regiment was a company of the II/78th Battalion – a company which had been previously in the Finisterres and had then been sent round the coast to reinforce the 20th Division. Despite all its marching this company had not fought; two-thirds of the men were ill with malaria; and most of the time of the fit men was spent searching for food. Defending the Wareo area against the 26th Brigade were the II and III Battalions of the 80th Regiment. There was evidence that the I/80th Battalion had been re-formed after its near destruction in the Salamaua–Lae fighting and was now in the Kanomi area.
By 27th November the 24th Brigade’s task was enlarged to include the clearing of the area south of the Kalueng River between Gusika and the Lakes. An obvious first move was to secure the coastal flank of the Gusika-Wareo ridge. The 2/28th Battalion had already been detailed for this task and Major Brown,4 now commanding the battalion because of Colonel Norman’s illness, called the company commanders together early on the 27th for orders. The battalion was to capture Imperial, Oriental, Norfolk and Exchange – the area from Bonga west to the junction of the Bonga-Wareo track with the Gusika-Wareo track. Captain Coppock’s company was to move to Pabu and come under Mollard’s command; next day it would clear the area from Pabu towards Exchange. Meanwhile Lieutenant Hannah’s company supported by a troop of tanks would advance up the coastal track.
Actually, the move of Coppock’s company to Pabu would solve more than one problem. Mollard’s two companies of the 2/32nd had suffered further casualties and he now told Porter that unless a diversion could be staged towards the two Japanese bases on either side – Exchange to the North-east and a feature near Horace’s Rump to the South-west – he would urgently need reinforcement if he was to hold Pabu. Coppock’s company, escorting a native carrier line, arrived at Pabu at 5.30 p.m.
Soon after 1 p.m. Hannah’s company, followed by the tanks, passed through the 2/43rd, advanced up the coast without opposition, and at 4.40 p.m. dug in for the night north of the waterfall. The advance continued at 9 a.m. on the 28th. Hannah’s company led, with the tanks and
a detachment of the 2/7th Field Company behind, and then the remainder of the battalion (less one company). The artillery observer moved with the command group just behind the tanks. Then came a bulldozer which improved the track so that jeeps could rapidly bring up supplies. The coastal strip was flat, marshy and covered with dense jungle, and the tanks could not leave the track, but the country was unsuitable for prolonged defence. The plan was for the tanks to follow the leading company and come to the front only when opposition was encountered. The Japanese sawed through some of the bridges, thus delaying the advance; most of the creeks in the area were also obstacles for the tanks, because crossings had to be made either by bridges or by breaking down the banks to provide fords.
Slowly but surely the battalion advanced. At 2.25 p.m. the forward scouts reported opposition from the north bank of a creek about 500 yards south of Bonga. The tanks initially could not join the company because a small stream farther back had to be bridged. Hannah sent a platoon to encircle the enemy position round the left flank, but it found the country too difficult and withdrew with two wounded. Porter and Brown came forward to see what was happening. The tanks crossed the newly-made bridge and bombarded the Japanese positions from a range
of 100 yards. This was too much for the defenders who rapidly withdrew. About the same time a platoon from Coppock’s company at Pabu found the high wooded ground at Exchange deserted. Here the men found a gun position for a 75-mm gun which had obviously been firing on Pabu. By dusk the rest of the company joined the platoon, and the track east from Pabu was clear as far as Exchange.
Porter thought that the 2/32nd Battalion had had about enough for the time being. He therefore ordered the 2/43rd to relieve it and prepare to advance west. At 3.35 p.m. Captain Grant’s company of the 2/43rd arrived at Pabu escorting a native carrier train. It was now the turn of Captain Thornton’s men, who had been on Pabu throughout, to have a spell; they escorted the natives and stretcher cases back to North Hill.
At first light on the 29th the 2/28th Battalion resumed the advance north and at 11.10 Bonga was occupied without opposition. A patrol from Hannah’s company probed to the north and at 12.15 p.m. found Gusika unoccupied. Half an hour later Head’s company occupied Oriental without opposition. The battalion had gained its objectives without loss and the division’s right flank was secure.
Early on the 29th Porter had been so sure that the 2/28th would have no difficulty in reaching Gusika that he ordered Colonel Joshua to start the thrust west from Pabu to the Lakes the same day. Joshua arrived on Pabu with two companies at 12.20 p.m. and at 3 p.m. Mollard with the remainder of his men left the battle-scarred hill which had been their home for ten perilous but decisive days. For the loss of 25 dead and 51 wounded the men of the 2/32nd had counted 195 dead Japanese and captured 10 machine-guns and 2 mortars; many other Japanese dead had been buried by their comrades.
As Mollard left for the south Grant moved cautiously west towards Horace’s Head. The leading scout reached Horace’s Ears about 400 yards west of Pabu when he noticed four Japanese walking down the track. An ambush was quickly set but the Japanese jumped into pits. The leading section promptly attacked. Private Bamess,5 the Bren gunner, took command when the section commander was killed and led the men forward until they were stopped by fire from two machine-guns sited in depth. Bamess went forward alone and destroyed the first machine-gun and then the second. His men then killed the Japanese in six weapon-pits before being stopped by fire from the right flank. Another section then attacked on the left flank and destroyed two more machine-gun posts before it, too, was pinned down by fire from a Japanese position behind a rock straight ahead.
Grant sent Sergeant Bonner’s6 platoon round on the right flank. It crept up the steep rise as close as possible to the enemy position, which was in a narrow kunai patch 15 yards wide between bamboo and thick
jungle, and thence Bonner led it into the attack until heavy fire from the right flank forced the men to take cover. Like Bamess before, Bonner moved forward under heavy fire and threw grenades at the Japanese machine-gun positions. He destroyed two and then returned to lead his platoon forward in a fierce assault. The Japanese retaliated with grenades but the attack was too determined to be withstood, and the defenders were overwhelmed, some being shot in their slit trenches. “Come this way”, and “Don’t shoot, they are ours”, shouted three Japanese who ran from the holes. Two were shot. The ground cleared was steep and covered with rocks and roots under which the Japanese had burrowed. It was doubtless valuable ground, but Joshua felt that the company should withdraw to a more favourable position. It was unfortunate that this ground, dearly won by skilful stalking and fierce fighting, had to be sacrificed.
Meanwhile, the 26th Brigade was probing north towards the Song River. Patrolling along the main track towards Fior on the 27th Lieutenant Gray’s company of the 2/23rd found an enemy position 700 yards before Fior. Patrols unsuccessfully searched the area to the North-west to find suitable crossings over the Song which loomed as the brigade’s main obstacle. The 2/24th patrolled north from Palanko. One platoon reached the 1800 Feature but could find no suitable tracks towards the Song. After some skirmishing two platoons pushed on towards Fior but were stopped by a strongly entrenched enemy position in bamboo and dug in for the night.
Next day the 2/23rd and 2/24th found that the Japanese had abandoned their positions during the night. The 2/23rd descended some 2,300 feet and passed through many small streams where the troops enjoyed their first baths for some time. Fior was empty. When they neared the Song the Australians and Papuans found that the suspension bridge had been destroyed and was lying in the stream. Gray’s company moved to within 150 yards of this main crossing place and drew heavy fire. Patrols found another possible crossing place where they waded through the river to the north side. By nightfall Lieutenant Lyne’s company of the 2/23rd was across the river and the bridgehead was secure.
On the 29th Wootten sent a warning to Brigadier Edgar of the 4th Brigade: “On a date to be notified 4 Itif Bde will advance by coast route to first objective – area about mouth of Masaweng River. ... Advance will be by bounds from and to beach maintenance areas only two of which will be used concurrently and which until relinquished will be protected by 4th Brigade.” Wootten planned that the brigade would concentrate in the Bonga area by 2nd December.
Like Wootten, Dougherty and Chilton, Edgar, whose brigade was now to enter the fight, had come from the 2/2nd Battalion, which he had commanded in the Owen Stanley campaign. Most of his long service in the militia between 1922 and 1939 had been in artillery. Thus this experienced and genial leader was well fitted for the task ahead; he knew the jungle and the Japanese, and would be keen to use artillery to overcome opposition. Lieut-Colonels Cusworth of the 29th/46th Battalion and
Rowan7 of the 37th/52nd had commanded companies in the Middle East. Lieut-Colonel O’Connor of the 22nd was a regular officer until recently on the staff of New Guinea Force.
By the 30th, the 9th Division was poised for what all hoped would be a knockout blow. As well as his 12 infantry battalions Wootten had a tank squadron, a machine-gun battalion, a Pioneer battalion and a commando squadron; in the area a powerful array of artillery and engineers was now available.8
The 2/28th led off on the morning of the 30th when a patrol crossed the Kalueng River on its way to the Lagoon area. A quarter of a mile north of the river it was halted by Japanese entrenched at the jungle fringe, and called for artillery and mortar support. From Pabu two companies of the 2/43rd, led by Captains Grant and Fleming, set out at 4 p.m. on the 30th to capture Horace’s Ears. Supported by two tanks, they advanced along a track running along a high spur with many ravines on each side. When the leading Australians were fired on from the eastern Ear the tanks came forward and blasted the position with such effect that by 7.15 p.m. the infantrymen captured the Ears against slight opposition.
On 1st December Lieutenant Rooke led a patrol from the 2/28th across the Kalueng towards the Lagoon after an artillery shoot on the positions occupied by the Japanese the previous day. Rooke’s men patrolled almost to the Lagoon. Late in the afternoon he decided to return but, after pushing south about 600 yards, his scouts heard sounds of digging and chopping ahead. After killing one Japanese and wounding another, Rooke moved west and then south to avoid the enemy position. Towards dusk he met a strong Japanese patrol to the South-west of the original position and had three men wounded. Moving North-east to avoid the enemy, the patrol dug in for the night, while Rooke climbed a tree and saw Japanese to the North-west and North-east. He then sent two volunteers – Privates Hutton9 and Wade10 – to try to slip through to battalion headquarters and summon aid. Both were killed.11 At 8 p.m. the patrol sneaked out under cover of rain and darkness and dug in for the night near the Kalueng. It arrived back at 9 a.m. on the 2nd.
Captain Fleming’s company of the 2/43rd was forming up with the tanks to advance to the Lakes early on the 1st when it was fired on from
the direction of Horace’s western Ear. The tanks soon blasted this opposition aside also, thus enabling Fleming to occupy Horace’s Jaws and later dig in on the Nose and the western Ear. Late in the afternoon a small patrol under Corporal Squibb12 set out to destroy an enemy position between the two companies. Throwing grenades and firing from the hip, the men overwhelmed these Japanese. One of the Japanese had a Bren, another a rifle and most were wearing Australian clothing and carrying Australian rations, probably obtained from inaccurate air drops on Pabu.
Captain Richmond’s company of the 2/43rd took over the advance towards the Lakes from the two companies which had now captured all of Horace. Richmond left Pabu at 8 a.m. on 2nd December with one tank in support, reached the edge of the kunai immediately east of the Lakes against slight opposition, and advanced another 250 yards, but withdrew slightly when his line of communication was attacked. Joshua decided to add punch to the attack by sending Fleming’s company and another tank round the right flank, and by 3.30 p.m. it reached the southern edge of the bigger lake. There a tank crawled up past Fleming’s company and fought a duel with two Japanese guns – a 75-mm and a 37-mm – firing from high ground north of the lake at 200 yards’ range. The tank was perhaps over venturesome and as it was in an exposed position on top of a rise it was eventually damaged after taking 50 hits. No shells penetrated the armour but tracks and track-adjusting mechanism were damaged; the crew eventually backed the tank out.
Wootten had finally satisfied himself that it would not be necessary to use the whole of the 20th Brigade in the central sector; only the 2/15th Battalion (now under Major Suthers’ command) with a platoon of Papuans would be needed to capture Nongora and send fighting patrols towards Christmas Hills. Thus on the 30th Captain Stuart’s company had advanced across rugged country to the Song, which was crossed about a quarter of a mile upstream from the ford. About 200 yards North-west of the crossing one man was killed and three wounded by machine-gun fire. The company then guarded the crossing while Captain Jenkinson’s13 company and Major Newcomb’s passed through and advanced towards Nongora, going round the Japanese position ahead of Stuart. At 2.30 p.m. a patrol from the reserve company south of the crossing found the enemy position deserted and occupied it; the leading companies dug in about a quarter of a mile from Nongora.
Early on 1st December these, companies faced Japanese on a high ridge running north and south to the east of the village. At 2.30 p.m. Jenkinson’s company attacked the Japanese positions on the south end of the ridge. The attack was fierce but unsuccessful, the Australians suffering 13 casualties. That night, however, the Japanese withdrew, and about midday on the 2nd Newcomb’s company entered a deserted Nongora, once the
headquarters of the 20th Japanese Division. Colonel Simpson instructed Major Strange,14 now commanding the leading companies, to patrol towards Christmas Hills and east towards the Lakes to assist the 24th Brigade.
During this three-day period the 26th Brigade had also been pushing forward over very difficult country. At first light on the 30th Captain Tietyens’ company of the 2/23rd crossed the Song at Lieutenant Lyne’s crossing place. The plan was now for both companies to cut the main Kuanko Track; Lyne would then advance north and Tietyens would move south and destroy the Japanese opposition at the regular crossing place. The companies scrambled up the steep slope to the track and, after a short rest, set out in their respective directions. After 200 yards Tietyens met strong resistance. In two sharp fights his men destroyed what must have been the rear positions of the enemy garrison defending the crossing. In a third attack Lieutenant Lazer’s15 platoon, with fixed bayonets, overwhelmed the remaining Japanese. About 30 casualties were inflicted on the enemy in this spirited assault. Soon the whole battalion had crossed the Song. When Lyne’s company met opposition about 900 yards from the river a battalion perimeter was formed for the night.
Throughout the Sattelberg campaign the weather had fortunately remained dry. It rained on the day Sattelberg fell and now late on the 30th it rained again, making the steep track from the Song to the 2/23rd even more difficult. Even without the rain it would have been impossible to use the tanks on the wretched tracks across the valley of the Song. Whitehead was finding it difficult to supply his brigade, even though only one of his battalions was in action. Despite the work of the engineers and a company of the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, the jeephead, at the end of November, had only reached Palanko. In wet weather the whole route almost as far back as Katika became impassable for jeeps which had to be towed by tractors. To supply the 2/23rd Battalion from Palanko a three-day turn around over steep country was necessary. Because such native carriers as could be spared for the 26th Brigade were insufficient, the whole of the 2/24th Battalion had to carry for the 2/23rd.
An attack by the 2/23rd cleared Kuanko on 1st December; dumping their non-essential gear to lighten and quicken their task of climbing the steep slope Lieutenant Gilmour’s company destroyed several small pockets of Japanese defenders along the track. At 12.15 p.m. the company smashed the last opposition south of Kuanko and entered the remains of the village. The Japanese still clung doggedly to the ridge beyond, however, as Lieutenant Gray’s company found at 2.30 p.m. when it advanced 300 yards North-west. Colonel Tucker signalled Whitehead that the opposition was “pretty solid”, adding, “think they may have to stick there for some time”. Supply difficulties now increased. The track was wet and slippery as heavy rain had fallen; this solved the water problem but made the task of the
2/24th Battalion even more unpleasant as the men struggled forward with supplies to a dump near Kuanko. The 2/24th, which had not had quite the same recent successes as its sister battalions, did not relish its task but stuck to it loyally.
At first light on 2nd December patrols from the 2/23rd north of Kuanko found the Japanese in strength along the ridge towards Peak Hill. Because of the thick bamboo the patrols could only crawl. At 8.30 a.m. the Japanese sprayed the whole Kuanko area with machine-gun fire. Thereupon artillery and mortars bombarded the Japanese position, and machine-guns increased the din of battle. At dusk the Japanese suddenly attacked Lyne’s company. They used bombs made of gelignite which had a frightening blast effect but did little damage. The company was caught on the wrong foot, some of the men withdrew, and some equipment was lost. The worst feature of the Japanese attack was the loss of the commanding ground north of Kuanko. So serious was the situation that Tucker sent Gilmour’s company into a night attack – the battalion’s first in New Guinea. The leading platoon lost several men including the platoon commander. Corporal Lay16 took charge and under heavy fire he and his men clung to the little ground gained until he was ordered to return. During this action Lieutenant McKeddie of the 2/12th Field Regiment was forward and for an hour and a half directed artillery fire which was mainly responsible for smashing the enemy attacks. Despite this the battalion was forced into what its diarist described as a “somewhat congested perimeter”.17
While the infantry were battling for Kuanko, the 2/4th Commando Squadron was scouting and patrolling. On 2nd December, when a company of the 2/48th Battalion took over Mararuo, Major Garvey moved to the Masangkoo area. Whitehead now ordered Garvey to arrange two patrols – one to find crossing places over the Song north from Masangkoo and the other into the Kulungtufu area. For this latter patrol a platoon of the Papuan Infantry joined the 2/4th. Captain Gore’s company of the Papuan Battalion had now been in action for three months and corps headquarters believed that it needed a rest, particularly as it had been subjected on occasions to artillery fire. General Morshead therefore decided that “A” Company of the Papuan Battalion, which had fought throughout the Salamaua campaign, should move forward from Lae and relieve Gore’s “C” Company which would rest in the pleasant Kulungtufu–Hube area and use its influence to enlist the local natives for Angau. It remained to be seen, of course, whether the Japanese were still in Kulungtufu.
For a brief two days, training teams from the “resting” battalions of the three AIF brigades were attached to Brigadier Edgar’s three battalions to pass on their recent experience in jungle fighting. Wootten
then decided to attach “experienced AIF personnel” from his brigades to Edgar’s three battalions as “advisers” during the 4th Brigade’s forthcoming operations. Thus the 20th, 24th and 26th Brigades would each supply to the 29th/46th, 37th/52nd and 22nd Battalions respectively a team consisting of 3 officers, 9 NCOs, 9 privates capable of leading sections, one private experienced in “Q” work, and one 3-inch mortarman capable of commanding a mortar detachment. The 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion would also attach an NCO and a private capable of commanding a machine-gun section to each battalion of the 4th Brigade. When these attachments were made the training teams returned to their brigades.
All was ready for a new phase of the Australian offensive. On 2nd December Wootten’s new operation order stated that the division would advance along the coast to an “ultimate objective to be notified”. The first phase would be the completion of the capture of the Gusika-Wareo-Sattelberg area and the capture of Fortification Point. The 26th and 24th Brigades would continue the thrust towards Wareo and Christmas Hills while the 4th would advance to Fortification Point.18 Edgar’s first brigade operation order, issued also on the 2nd, stated that the advance to Fortification Point would be by bounds, the first two to the area west of Kamlagidu Point and north of the Lagoon, and the third to Kiligia. On these bounds the 29th/46th Battalion would lead, with a company of the 37th/52nd Battalion assisted by the Papuan platoon as flank protection in the foothills to the west. Wootten decided that supply by sea would be quicker and more efficient than by land. Successive beach-heads must therefore be captured and protected until the next beach-head up the coast was opened. At the most, even for a two-brigade advance, only two beach-heads would be in use concurrently.
Lieut-Colonel Searl19 wished to use the small Gusika beach at the mouth of the Kalueng River as the first beach-head, but the engineers had first to remove underwater and hardwood obstacles and build a bridge over the steep-banked Kalueng for the tanks and jeeps to cross. Consequently Edgar ordered the 22nd Battalion to cross the river on the 3rd and capture a bridgehead.
At first light on the 3rd Colonel O’Connor moved forward to Gusika to reconnoitre the crossing; at 9 a.m. he gave his orders – capture the high ground north and west of Gusika and secure the Gusika beach-head. Captain Dodd’s20 company at 10.15 a.m. moved to cover the Kalueng
ford. Half an hour later three companies – Captain McFadden’s,21 Captain Guild’s22 and Captain Martin’s – crossed. After McFadden’s men on the coastal track had scrambled up a 30-foot bluff overlooking the Kalueng, the leading platoon advanced about 100 yards before being stopped by machine-gun and mortar fire from the’ track ahead. McFadden called for artillery support but there was a delay of an hour because of faulty communications. When the artillery bombardment ceased at 12.45 p.m. the company attacked, but without success. A quarter of an hour later Guild’s company reached unmolested a knoll about a mile North-west of Gusika, while Martin’s company was fired on about half way between the other two companies. Unable to encircle the Japanese position because of a cliff to the left, Martin withdrew south and west and then took up a position just north of the Kalueng.
After more artillery fire McFadden’s company attacked again, this time assisted by a section of machine-gunners who fired north along the timber edge and then switched to the tree tops to deal with snipers. By 5 p.m. the company had driven out the enemy. Thus the 22nd Battalion established the bridgehead and reached a position about 500 yards south of the Lagoon.
The 22nd Battalion fought hard on the 4th to clear the enemy south of the Lagoon, but without success. Patrols discovered the enemy dug in near the creek half way from the Kalueng to the Lagoon. At 11.55 a.m. one of McFadden’s platoons which had attacked the Japanese position was forced to withdraw because of strong enemy fire; it reported that the track was mined against tanks. McFadden now tried to arrange an artillery shoot on the Japanese position but, for the third time in three days, the artillery signal lines failed, so that it was not possible to begin the shelling until 2.15 p.m.
The attack, this time by two platoons, began when the shelling finished at 2.45 p.m. Lieutenant Holdsworth’s23 platoon on the right reached a garden area before turning left and cutting the track. The left-hand platoon did not arrive in time to support the right-hand one. When Holdsworth opened fire the Japanese replied from west and south of the garden and also from the creek. Holdsworth and others were wounded in the first burst and the platoon became disorganised. Even at this early stage the company had not enough leaders; there were no NCOs in the platoon, and it was because of the initiative and coolness of Private Lindhe24 that it did not panic. He was commanding the right-hand section in the northern end of the garden when he found his left flank unprotected because the other two sections had withdrawn. Leaving his own section, he rallied the other two, recovered the wounded, and led the platoon out of a difficult situation towards the coast and then to the south. The
left-hand platoon was too late to join in the fighting and was fired on before it too withdrew. It seemed that there was at least a company of Japanese well dug in between the creek and the coast.
During this action a platoon from Martin’s company, led by Lieutenant Prendergast, reached the upper sections of the creek. It was fired on at 3.45 p.m. from enemy positions lower down, and later from the north bank of the creek. A runner reached Martin’s headquarters at 5 p.m. and immediately set out again to guide the company to the beleaguered platoon. The wounded were recovered before the reunited company withdrew in the face of strong enemy pressure.
To 13 casualties suffered on the first day were now added 17 on the 4th. During the day the sappers finished the bridge over the Kalueng and the tanks were ready to cross. The bridgehead had been established for the loss of 30 men – a high loss which would undoubtedly be avoided in similar conditions after more experience. The other two battalions were ready for their part on the 4th; the diarist of the 37th/52nd Battalion noted the “air of expectancy” within his battalion.
The Japanese opposing the 22nd Battalion were probably from a mixed force of infantry (II/238th Battalion, and a company from 78th Regiment), engineers and artillery under Major Tashiro, the commander of the II/238th Battalion. The force order stated that “the force, while avoiding any decisive engagement, will carry out successive resistance to try to delay enemy advance”.
On the Wareo Track Brigadier Porter was worried by the physical condition of the 2/43rd Battalion. “It was apparent,” he wrote, “that they were not equal to the task of attacking beyond the Lakes area.” When, on 3rd December, he ordered the 24th Brigade to capture Christmas Hills he decided that he must pep up or relieve the 2/43rd. He hoped to use the 2/28th Battalion but, as all senior officers of that battalion were sick and it was commanded by the adjutant, Captain Freedman25 (although himself ill), Porter decided that the most rested portions of the 2/32nd Battalion must be used. The 2/32nd had expected a real spell and the men were relaxing and swimming and enjoying canteen supplies. “It is a great tonic,” wrote the battalion’s diarist, “to wear fresh clean clothes again.” But at 9.30 a.m. on the 3rd Colonel Scott with two companies left the Pino Hill-North Hill area to help the 2/43rd.
When Scott’s force arrived at the Lakes – Bacon and Egg as they were named – he found Captain Richmond’s company of the 2/43rd in a fierce fight with the Japanese; it was covering the tanks, now bogged and disabled, and attempting to dislodge the Japanese 50 yards ahead. By midday the enemy could withstand the pressure no longer and withdrew 100 yards. Scott now took command in the Lakes area with two companies of the 2/43rd under command. He planned to use Gordon’s company to cut the main track half way between the Lakes and Christmas Hills after a wide flanking movement to the south; Fleming’s would next clear the track from there back to the 2/32nd which would then resume the advance to Christmas Hills.
Early on the 3rd a patrol from the 2/15th led by Lieutenant Richardson26 probed forward from Nongora towards Christmas Hills (1800 Feature). About 900 yards south of Christmas Hills the patrol met the Japanese and Richardson, going forward to investigate, was killed. Strange issued his orders for the capture of Christmas Hills – the 2/32nd’s objective. The 2/15th were warned to keep in close touch with Scott.
Scott’s composite force which began the attack on the 4th was tired; his own two companies still needed a long rest after Pabu and the companies from the 2/43rd Battalion were only capable of carrying on when they were “culled of semi-sick personnel and supplemented by HQ company personnel”.27 Battle casualties, sickness and the strain of three months of jungle fighting were having their effects. Malarial casualties were heavy. All battalions were well below strength, and it was just as well that the end appeared to be in sight.28
From 7 a.m. on the 4th the 24th Battery bombarded the Japanese positions along the track. An hour later the 3-inch mortars took up the plastering. Gordon’s company of the 2/43rd at the same time travelled south from the main track and to the west parallel with it. The route was very rough and led along razor-backs. As they moved west the men could hear the Japanese talking and moving about on the main track to the north. After moving silently in a wide semi-circle, the company, by good navigation, reached the track at the spot intended, about 800 yards behind the Japanese. Fleming’s company also reached the track and by 2 p.m. both companies were digging their positions along the track. Although the Japanese were at each end of the length of track occupied by the two companies, both company commanders told Scott that the position was quite tenable.
To save the 2/32nd for the final phase, Scott ordered Fleming’s company to attack east and clear the track. Fleming set off at 3.30 p.m. but half an hour later the company was stopped by Japanese firing from a saddle. The 2/43rd’s frame of mind was evident from the comment in its diary that “B” Company had been instructed “to move 800 yards down track to clear out enemy pocket that frightened 2/32nd Battalion” – not the normal sort of remark by one illustrious battalion about another.
By this time the 2/15th Battalion had also found that its expectations could not be fulfilled. Captain Stuart’s company left confidently at 2.45 p.m., keeping to the east of the main track. The company reached to within a quarter of a mile of the main Wareo-Gusika track south of Christmas Hills, where further progress was stopped by a steep gorge. It then returned and Captain Snell’s company prepared for another attempt, this time to the North-west. Late on the 4th Wootten instructed Simpson that the 2/15th would cease to take an active part in the fight towards
Christmas Hills, but would hold Nongora until the jeephead arrived there. He intended to save the 20th Brigade for the coastal advance.
In the Kuanko area on 3rd December the 2/23rd Battalion was clinging grimly to the unfavourable position to which it had been pushed by the enemy on the previous evening. The brigade “sitrep” early in the morning stated: “Enemy in strong positions overlooking our positions and seems determined to hold the ground.” Despite the efforts of the 2/24th Battalion, the 2/23rd Battalion still had too few supplies. Tucker’s second-in-command, Major Spier,29 had a hard task organising and leading supplies forward from the Song to Kuanko. At first light on the 3rd Tucker was better able to estimate the damage done by the loss of the high ground. A patrol discovered that the battalion’s supply route where it curled and entered Kuanko from due North-east was under Japanese fire, and that the Japanese had dug in within 20 yards of the sharp bend. A new supply route was rapidly cut and the porters from the 2/24th were not molested during their stiff climb to Kuanko.
Enemy snipers were troubling the 2/23rd, but the battalion more than held its own in the sniping and firing duel. After midday the Japanese fired from both sides “but”, wrote the battalion’s diarist, “such attention from the enemy became merely an uncomfortable portion of the daily routine, without causing undue inconvenience”. Late in the day Captain Dennys’30 company of the 2/24th moved up the Kuanko Track and dug in 900 yards south of the 2/23rd.
Next morning both the 2/23rd and 2/24th Battalions prepared to deal with the Japanese. It was not long, however, before Tucker found that the Japanese had moved round to his rear in the night and seemed certain to cut his communications. Five minutes after receiving this news, Whitehead at 8.25 a.m. ordered Colonel Gillespie to have Dennys’ company of the 2/24th “squeeze” the portion of the track occupied by the Japanese and join the 2/23rd. An hour later Dennys advanced north towards the 2/23rd’s position without seeing any Japanese. At 11 a.m. Dennys was fired on by Japanese to the east of the main track when he had reached a track junction about 75 yards south of the 2/23rd. He dug in and sent out patrols which found that the enemy was occupying the track between Kuanko and the company’s position. “Leaving Japanese where he is for moment,” wrote the brigade diarist, “as we know where he is.” While the enemy was being left where he was Lieutenant Shattock31 of the 2/24th led a patrol to cut the Wareo–Kuanko track at Peak Hill. At 3.30 p.m. the patrol joined the 2/23rd Battalion to discuss routes to Peak Hill.
In the mid-afternoon Gillespie suggested using the artillery more than it had been recently used. Brigade agreed and asked for targets. It was a pity that the brigade at this stage did not have the support of the 2nd
Mountain Battery. Whitehead had several times asked for it, but Division had other plans, plans which came to nothing. On 29th November Whitehead informed Lieutenant Cunningham,32 who was reconnoitring the Sattelberg area for new gun positions, that he wanted the guns to cover the advance on Wareo. On 1st December the battery commander reported to 26th Brigade headquarters, where he was told that the brigade expected to occupy Wareo by 2 p.m. and that the guns would probably not be needed in the next move along the Lakona Track to the coast. “No job at all for us ...” exploded the battery’s diarist next day. “It is hard to see why we were brought here in the first place. ... Under present conditions no orders at all forthcoming from RAA who will not allot us in support of a brigade or give us a defensive role or zone or tell us that there is nothing to do. The only orders are to ‘wait.’”33
On the left flank the 2/4th Commando Squadron and a platoon of the Papuan Infantry assisted by some Angau men were patrolling. On the 4th a patrol to the west reached Joangeng where the natives reported that 44 Japanese had recently been in the area. The gardens were good and native foods were plentiful. Brigade now decided to establish a dump of stores at Joangeng; about 100 natives with signal equipment and rations for 30 men for 8 days were warned to move west. Information from the patrols confirmed native rumours that Japanese convalescents from the 20th Division in the Joangeng–Kulungtufu area had been moving North-east towards Zagahemi.
There was still some tough fighting and wretched country ahead before Wareo could be taken, but the end could not be long delayed. Poorly administered, indifferently led, and badly supplied, the Japanese of the 20th Division had only their courage and determination left to withstand the Australians’ relentless pressure towards Wareo. The Australians were very tired but the Japanese were desperately so.
Between the Lakes and Christmas Hills Scott’s force pushed west on 5th December. The companies of the 2/43rd Battalion early found that the enemy between their positions and the 2/32nd had disappeared during the night, leaving dead men of the 79th and 80th Regiments, equipment, rifles and, near an anti-tank ditch, a gun position and a dump of 81-mm mortar bombs. Thornton’s company of the 2/32nd Battalion now led the advance and dug in about 250 yards farther west and within striking distance of Christmas Hills. When Davidson’s company took over these positions Thornton tried to outflank Japanese 50 yards farther on. After moving south and parallel to the track for 200 yards he found the Japanese between his company and the track. Trying to break through, the Australians found the Japanese well dug in on another ridge nearer the track.
Six Japanese were killed but the company lost seven men, including a platoon commander, Corporal Bemrose,34 killed. Private Curley35 was given command of this platoon, which covered the extrication of the wounded. The company then withdrew to the lower slopes of Christmas Hills.
Early on the 6th the 24th Battery bombarded Christmas Hills with 500 shells in 40 minutes. Davidson’s company, followed by Thornton’s, then tried to approach Christmas Hills from the North-east but were halted by heavy fire. For the remainder of the day 25-pounders and 3-inch mortars shelled the Japanese. The day ended with the 2/32nd Battalion dug in on the eastern slope near the top of Christmas Hills, and the Japanese about 100 yards away on the western slope.
True to form the Japanese abandoned these last positions in the night. The end came none too soon, for the companies of the 2/32nd Battalion were down to about 30 tired men each. Scott later wrote:–
It is admitted that our advance was slow. ... Our advance due to terrain was made principally along the track except for the cutting of the track 800 yards behind the enemy’s FDLs in the first phase of the attack and even then the “going” was so difficult that our wounded could not be evacuated along our outward track and had to wait till the following day when the enemy between our forces were eradicated. The enemy successively took up positions on commanding ground – our attack was made on continually rising ground right to the top of Christmas Hills – and each time we attempted an outflanking movement our progress was frustrated by unscaleable cliffs on the top of which sat the Jap. It was impossible to use tanks. Our companies were little more than platoons in strength. ... The only feasible plan under the circumstances was to pin-point the enemy defences and then “bash” him with mortars and artillery; this method proved really effective causing many casualties and forcing him to evacuate his positions leaving his wounded, equipment, ammunition and some weapons behind. Admittedly we could have possibly captured the positions quicker by a “death or glory” assault on the enemy defences. However, our casualties would have been heavy and we could ill afford to risk such a venture at this stage due to our sadly depleted strengths, and further our troops were almost exhausted mentally and physically – actually in this operation our casualties were light – one killed and nine wounded.
The 26th Brigade’s experience was similar as it strove to advance the short distance from Kuanko to Wareo. On the 5th heavy rain prevented the jeeps getting far with the supplies. By the strenuous efforts of the natives, the 2/24th, and part of brigade headquarters, enough supplies were carried forward to enable Whitehead to use the 2/24th for fighting again. It was now obvious to him that an enemy company on the high ground north and North-east of Kuanko could hold up a battalion. This is exactly what was happening. Patrols from the 2/23rd towards the North-east were unable to penetrate far because of the rugged country. Captain Bieri’s company of the 2/24th was now ordered to follow Shattock’s platoon which continued its out-flanking move on the 5th and dug in west of the track between Kuanko and Peak Hill. Gillespie’s head-
quarters moved up during the day to about 500 yards south of the 2/23rd and both commanding officers discussed plans.
Early on the 6th three companies of the 2/24th were following Shattock’s platoon. At 8.40 a.m. Tucker discovered that the Japanese had left their positions to his North-east. Here extensive diggings for about 50 men were found. By 10 a.m. Shattock reached a position just south of Peak Hill while the three companies crawled up behind over the rugged and exhausting country. The 2/23rd Battalion an hour later saw movement along the ridge running North-east of Wareo. While the artillery shelled the Wareo area the men speculated whether the Japanese were withdrawing and hoped that it might be so.
At 3.20 p.m. Shattock cut the Kuanko–Kwatingkoo track, and 20 minutes later found the Kuanko-Wareo track. Without wasting any time Gillespie gave his orders: Bieri’s company would occupy the Kuanko–Kwatingkoo track at Shattock’s position and then attack east to Peak Hill; Captain McNamara’s company would follow to Peak Hill and then advance north along the Kuanko–Wareo track; Lieutenant Greatorex’s36 company would follow and then advance west to cut the Kwatingkoo–Peak Hill–Wareo track. The brigade major, Mackay, passed on this information to Tucker at 3.50 p.m. and asked him to try a deception when the 2/24th attacked. Tucker replied that his battalion would arrange a “synchronised hate session” when the 2/24th attacked and would fire a flare when Bieri was seen coming over the opposite slope.
At 4.48 p.m. Gillespie told brigade and the 2/23rd that Bieri expected to reach the track junction five minutes after the start time (5 p.m.). At 4.56 watches were checked; three minutes later the 2/24th was ready to begin the advance and the 2/23rd was “lined up” to start firing in a minute. At 5 p.m. the 2/23rd’s “hate session” began with a shattering roar in which the 25-pounders joined the battalion’s mortars, machine-guns and small arms.
Meanwhile Bieri’s company advanced east towards Peak Hill and the other two companies prepared to follow to their destinations. At 5.50 Bieri reported that a spur on the north side of a track running down the hill towards the 2/23rd Battalion was heavily defended. Gillespie ordered him to outflank this position to the north, a difficult task as any route other than the track lay through the inevitable dense bamboo. By 6.45 the company was ordered to dig in on the western slopes of Peak Hill. After dark at 8.5 a band of Japanese apparently trying to withdraw from Kuanko ran into Bieri’s position and six were killed.
By last light both the following companies reached their objectives – Greatorex’s near Kwatingkoo and McNamara’s with Bieri’s. Judged on past performances it seemed reasonable to expect that the Japanese would have left the Kuanko-Peak Hill area by the following morning. Whitehead now planned that the two battalions would clear the track between them;
the 2/24th would then pinpoint the Japanese on the Wareo Track, and the 2/23rd would pass through and capture Wareo.
Early on the 7th, Lieutenant Stevens led a patrol of the 2/24th to the north of Kwatingkoo and it killed 12 Japanese. There was no answering fire when, at first light, the 2/23rd fired on the enemy positions north of Kuanko. As expected the enemy had gone in the night. At 9.25 the 2/23rd reported to brigade that Bieri’s leading platoon had just joined the 2/23rd after an unopposed advance south of about 600 yards. Peak Hill and Kuanko were thus in Australian hands.
At this stage the pilot of the daily Tac R plane dropped a message to the 2/23rd giving the positions of enemy diggings along the track to Wareo. By 11 a.m. Gray’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion had passed through the 2/24th and met the Japanese 600 yards from Wareo. Bieri was on Peak Hill and McNamara and Greatorex on a hill north of Kwatingkoo. Whitehead now ordered Gillespie to “stand fast” until Tucker could come forward and decide by which route he would advance to Wareo. While Tucker was reconnoitring the area patrols from the 2/24th discovered that Kwatingkoo was still held strongly by the enemy. To the west McNamara’s company began to encircle Kwatingkoo at 4.30 p.m. In the village the Japanese seemed to have at least four machine-guns and a mortar, and a platoon patrol to the south and east reported that the slopes towards the village from these directions were steep and well covered by enemy weapons.
While the tired battalions were thus stalled before Wareo, divisional headquarters began to think that brigade headquarters should urge the battalions on. This thought process seemed to be inevitable whenever the cutting edge was unable, for a variety of reasons, to cut in accordance with the planners’ schedule. Colonel Barham, during the afternoon, discussed the possibility of switching over to an advance through Nongora, and informed Whitehead that divisional headquarters felt that his headquarters should be farther forward than Sattelberg. Whitehead pointed out that Wareo was the “limit of exploitation” from the supply viewpoint. Until more supplies were available “we would do what was humanly possible, but this may prove dangerous and foolish”. He mentioned also that two battalions had been used for carrying and road making “which was worse than fighting”. It was strange that anyone should seriously think of advancing through Nongora at this stage.
At 7.45 a.m. on the 8th McNamara’s company of the 2/24th occupied Kwatingkoo without opposition. Tietyens’ company of the 2/23rd followed by Gilmour’s was now leading on the road to Wareo. By 9.15 Tietyens was very close to the Wareo ridge, which was as silent as the track from Peak Hill had been. A quarter of an hour later both companies were on the ridge. Gilmour’s men hoisted the Australian flag on the highest point. “Waren has been captured,” signalled Tucker to Whitehead.
The 20th Division had had enough and General Adachi had decided to cut his losses. When General Katagiri lost Sattelberg, Pabu and Gusika, the early fall of
Wareo was inevitable. Early in December, therefore, Katagiri received orders to withdraw. By 5th December the 80th Regiment, still holding Kuanko, and the 79th Regiment, still defending the Lakes, had orders to withdraw north.
Divisional headquarters and the 79th Regiment would retire by inland tracks to Kalasa and Sio, while the 80th Regiment would move North-east to Lakona and then retire to the north along the coast after the withdrawal of the 79th Regiment. In the fighting of October and November the 79th Regiment had suffered heavier casualties than the 80th. To help the speedy movement of divisional headquarters and the 79th Regiment to Kalasa, divisional engineers and the 79th’s regimental labour company would build a new and better track branching north from the Wareo–Lakona track. It would be the task of Major Tashiro of the II/238th Battalion to delay the Australian coastal advance until the two Japanese regiments had passed safely by.
While the 2/23rd Battalion occupied the ruins of Wareo the 2/24th prepared to pursue the enemy east and west. Bieri’s and Greatorex’s companies on the 8th set out North-east to occupy the track junction half way between Wareo and Christmas Hills. From the opposite direction Scott assembled as many fit men from battalion headquarters and the Headquarters Company of the 2/32nd as he could and sent them under Lieutenant Worner37 North-west along the track from Christmas Hills to await the 2/24th at the track junction, which Bieri reached at 3 p.m. Here the two companies were stopped by heavy enemy fire from a strong position on the 2200 Feature covering the track junction. This feature was actually the objective, and the companies now dug in and tried unsuccessfully to find a route round the feature through the precipitous country to the north. After dark at 8 p.m. the enemy attacked Bieri’s right flank but were driven off with casualties.
West of Wareo the 2/24th met more serious opposition. After occupying Kwatingkoo early in the morning McNamara was ordered to cut the Wareo–Bazuluo track and then occupy Bazuluo. At 1.50 p.m. the company, advancing rapidly west, was ambushed from an ideal ambush position just east of Bazuluo and 4 men were wounded and 8, including McNamara, were missing.
Lieutenant Halliday38 took command, and within an hour the depleted company brought in the 4 wounded and found 2 of the missing men dead. “B” Company of the 2/23rd Battalion now commanded by Captain McMaster39 moved rapidly west to help Halliday. Soon after 4.35 p.m. when the two companies joined forces McMaster sent out two patrols. The first tried to cut the track north from Bazuluo to prevent the escape of the Japanese, but dusk came before it could get into position. A second patrol found the bodies of the men still missing. In the brigade’s hour of triumph the loss of 8 men killed, including McNamara, had a dampening effect. The death of McNamara, who had become a legend in the battalion and the brigade, cast a cloud over the closing stages of the
campaign. He was typical of the superb young leaders who flourished in the Australian Army at this time. Their natural courage, leadership and vigour, tempered now with experience and skill, played no small part in making Australia’s jungle army such a formidable fighting organisation. Like others of his kind, McNamara was a born leader, and a man of kindness, courage and riotous good humour who inspired his men to attempt seemingly impossible tasks by his own personal example. When his body was brought in it was found that most of his equipment and his huge boots had been removed by the Japanese. This worried his company as “Big Mac” had always ordered that he was to be buried in his boots, and an unofficial patrol set out to recover them. At dawn the patrol returned and placed the boots in the grave with their company commander.
There were still some Japanese to drive from the rugged country between Wareo and Christmas Hills. On the 9th Worrier’s platoon from the 2/32nd advanced about 1,800 yards to the North-west when the leading scout’s hat was knocked off by machine-gun fire from a strong Japanese position on a razor-back overlooking the track. Worner withdrew 100 yards and listened to the two companies of the 2/24th west of the razorback exchanging fire with the enemy. Shattock’s platoon of the 2/24th spent the afternoon moving round the south flank towards the 2/32nd Battalion where, at Worner’s request, Bieri threw two grenades at 30 seconds’ intervals for identification. Later this signal was changed to three rifle shots at half-minute intervals. When Worrier replied with the same signal Bieri estimated that something between 500 and 1,000 yards separated the two brigades. Towards last light the distance between seemed more like 300 yards.
In the Bazuluo area McMaster sent a platoon of the 2/23rd on the 9th to cut the track to the north. The two companies entered a deserted Bazuluo about midday and found there a 200-bed Japanese hospital. Most Japanese had now gone but Halliday’s patrols of the 2/24th met a small Japanese force about 200 yards west of Bazuluo soon after 3 p.m. About that time a 2/4th Commando patrol probing towards Bazuluo met a small Japanese rearguard which withdrew to the north. Two hours later Halliday encountered stronger opposition on a track leading north but not marked on the map. At 5.20 p.m. brigade signalled Garvey: “Could you send party forward to contact Nips?” Garvey sent off a patrol within ten minutes, found the Japanese by 6.15 p.m. and attacked. At 7.5 p.m. he reported that his patrol had driven away the Japanese but it was too late to go on to Bazuluo.
On the 10th the 24th and 26th Brigades were linked at last when at 10.15 a.m. Shattock’s platoon from the 2/24th reached Worner’s of the 2/32nd. The two platoons then moved west along the track, but were held up by the enemy clinging defiantly if despairingly to the high ground north of the track junction. On the western flank the commando patrol passed through the Japanese position captured the previous evening and 400 yards from Bazuluo met Halliday’s men. Thus was junction made
across the whole battlefront. For several of the weary battalions rest, hot meals and regular washing were now possible.
With all hope gone the Japanese on the 11th were still holding grimly the 2200 Feature at the track junction. At 2.25 p.m. Bieri, supported by Greatorex and Halliday, began an encircling move. Reaching the high ground above the track at 5.30 p.m. Bieri’s forward troops met some scattered opposition which was quickly overcome, but because of the difficult country and the fast approaching night Bieri was unable to silence the enemy positions covering the track junction, and he dug in at last light.
The Japanese rearguard was still on the 2200 Feature on 12th December. From before first light the enemy replied to Bieri’s fire. By 9.50 a.m. an ammunition party from Wareo reached the company and Shattock from the east also joined Bieri. It now seemed that only about 250 yards of track remained to be opened. Bieri’s company searched for a route to the west and north trying to come in behind the enemy. The Japanese meanwhile were still facing Greatorex. At 11.45 Bieri’s men were in position and began to drive South-west along the 2200 Feature to clear the enemy from the track junction. Two platoons (Lieutenants Nolan40 and Stretch41) came under heavy machine-gun fire from 20 yards’ range; two men were killed and Nolan wounded. Shattock’s platoon continued the advance, Private Ball42 being killed on top of the first machine-gun post after a brave advance firing his Owen gun. Corporal Boully43 was killed and Shattock wounded at the same time. Private Legg,44 a Bren gunner, then advanced 20 yards alone firing from the hip at the first machine-gun. Single handed he killed the three Japanese manning the gun and captured it. He then advanced unconcerned through heavy fire towards the second machine-gun and again killed all the Japanese manning it. Inspired by Legg’s heroism the rest of the company steadily pressed forward hoping for this last Japanese defence to crack. They were rewarded when, by 3.30 p.m., those Japanese who were not among the 27 killed, fled. Greatorex’s company then prepared to move through and pursue the enemy along the Lakona Track towards the 2000 Feature. At 3.55 brigade signalled division: “After heavy fighting today last enemy positions 2200 Feature captured 1530 hours. Bonga-Wareo track now open.”
For the next five days patrols from the two brigades sometimes met Japanese stragglers but mostly went deep into the areas forward from their sectors without meeting any. All that now remained to complete the rout of the 20th Japanese Division from this area was attended to by
Greatorex’s company. On the 13th they began to climb the razor-back to which the Japanese were still clinging and dug in for the night half way up. Next day at 3.15 p.m. Greatorex sent two platoons to attack the crest of the razor-back. By 4.40 p.m. they reached the upper slopes where they met the Japanese. They found it impossible to get to the top round the left flank, and sought a better route round the right. The third platoon now joined the other two near the top. Two gave covering fire while Lieutenant Hewitt’s45 attacked frontally along the east side of the razorback. An hour later it drove out the Japanese who left four dead when fleeing into the cane on the west side.
On the 15th Halliday’s company continued the advance. When descending into a gully at the base of the 2000 Feature the company was fired at by at least two machine-guns on a small ridge across the gully. For the rest of the day patrols tried to get round both flanks, an almost impossible task because of the steep slopes. The Japanese ahead disappeared during the night but so steep was the country that it took the company most of the day to establish this fact. Early in the morning Halliday found that the Japanese were not in position across the gully; he then advanced cautiously up the slope of the 2000 Feature.
Brigade headquarters was becoming impatient and “annoyed at loss of time this morning”, according to its signal to the 2/24th. The advance was slow, unavoidably, but it was also sure. By 11.20 Halliday was climbing up the 2000 Feature. At 5 p.m. Captain Mackenzie’s company passed through and at last light reached huts near the summit. Next day at 9 a.m. this company occupied the crest of the 2000 Feature unopposed. Both companies then scoured the area which had been a Japanese headquarters. A track to the north with a signpost was obviously the Japanese escape route.
This was the end of the 26th Brigade’s exploitation. In many parts of the Gusika-Wareo area, captured by the 24th and 26th Brigades, were abandoned Japanese headquarters and equipment. This was not surprising as General Katagiri had set up his headquarters in the Nongora area early in November. All that remained of the 20th Division in this area consisted of abandoned foxholes, entrenchments, ammunition and ration dumps, equipment, weapons, camps, medical aid posts and graves. Over all this the relentless jungle was crawling, and the rain was helping to obliterate all traces of the once-proud conqueror. The valour, stamina, rugged determination and resources of the 9th Australian Division had proved too much for the 20th Japanese Division. Like the 51st Division in September, most of the remnants of Katagiri’s battered division were retreating by inland trails to Lakona and Sio. His rearguard was now being smashed by the 4th Australian Brigade between Gusika and Fortification Point.