Chapter 24: Toehold on Shaggy Ridge
BEHIND its screen of patrols, late in October and November, the 7th Division’s task remained the same: to prevent enemy penetration into the Ramu and Markham Valleys and protect the Gusap airfield and the various radar installations. The 25th Brigade was now forward. On the right was the 2/25th Battalion on Johns’ Knoll, Trevor’s Ridge and Beveridge’s Post, one company being forward at Mainstream on the east bank of the Faria River with the huge mass of Shaggy Ridge rising sheer on the west. On the left was the 2/33rd Battalion based on Guy’s Post, with one company forward on the southern slopes of Shaggy Ridge and another on the saddle to the left at Don’s Post. On clear days the men could sometimes see barges and ships off the coast. On the right the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion was based on the Moto’s Post area with two companies to the South-east at Levett’s Post. The 2/31st was in reserve.
After its relief the 21st Brigade moved to the Mene River area. The 2/14th Battalion occupied an area near the Yogia (Ioge) River with patrols forward to the vicinity of the Evapia River, and the 2/16th and 2/27th Battalions occupied an area east of the Mene River and on the high ground north of the road. “B” Company of the Papuan Battalion was forward of the Evapia River with patrols on the 5800 Feature. Patrols from the 2/6th Commando Squadron, under divisional command, now began to penetrate the Isariba–Orgoruna country to the North-west from the squadron base at Kesawai. Farther west the 2/2nd Squadron was operating with two troops from the new Faita airstrip while one troop rested and guarded Garoka.
In these new positions the division settled down to a month of solid and arduous patrolling. As usual in New Guinea fighting, the Japanese were content to sit in their defences while the Australians patrolled and dominated the rugged no-man’s land. This policy would prove disastrous to the Japanese in the end although, at the time, it seemed to the sweating and swearing Australian patrols that the Japanese idea of sitting in their defences was a good one. The Japanese had established themselves strongly in natural defensive positions on Shaggy Ridge and in flanking positions on both sides of it. From the Pimple – a rocky peak rising steeply about half way along the crest of Shaggy Ridge – the Japanese found it relatively easy to resist any advance. Patrols from the 2/27th Battalion had already found that the Pimple could be approached only along the top of the spur, for the slopes were too steep to move along, and the top of the spur was wide enough for only one man at a time. Often the Pimple was a blurred shape capped by mist and hidden by rain clouds.
First blood was shed by the 25th Brigade in its new positions on 11th November when a patrol from the 2/25th, moving in the Mainstream–kunda bridge area, clashed with a small Japanese patrol and inflicted a few
casualties for the loss of two men wounded, including the patrol commander, Lieutenant Wells.1 Patrols from the commando squadrons also clashed with enemy patrols on the 11th – Corporal Busk’s2 patrol of the 2/6th while moving down the rugged slopes of the Haile River, and a 2/2nd patrol moving towards Bagasin met the enemy in the Aminik area. The 2/6th were worried about their new position for the Papuans were not in the old positions of the 2/6th but in a more concentrated area with only standing patrols out, thus allowing the Japanese greater freedom in the upper Solu River area. The native soldiers of the Papuan Battalion at this stage were weary and footsore and there was a high rate of sickness among their Australian officers and NCOs. The Papuans, however, were still regularly called upon by the infantry to assist in scouting, and on the 12th one of their standing patrols repulsed a Japanese patrol of 20 men.
Throughout all areas supplies were built up and strenuous attempts made to improve the health of the division. Malaria in this valley of death (as the Ramu was known to the natives) was still the cause of the greatest number of casualties. Despite more rigorous precautions there were many new cases and recurrences daily.3
Topographical information improved and ahead of the forward posts the Allied airmen made a thorough study of the Bogadjim Road and did their best to destroy its bridges. The engineers of the 2/5th and 2/6th Field Companies kept the airstrips inland in perfect condition and pushed their roads forward into the hills to the Lakes and as far west as Kesawai. The diarist of the 2/5th Field Company described activities during November thus:
Work generally was road construction and maintenance. ... This work was divided into sections and each section was a platoon task. The work included crossings of Faria River, Mosia, Mene and loge [Yogia] Rivers, which entailed in most parts timber beam bridge constructions ...; gaps were generally between 70 feet and 80 feet and entailed two trestles, each usually 10-14 feet high. In the early part of the month no precast type culvert sections were available. To overcome this difficulty pipe culverts were constructed from 25-pdr shell and cartridge cases, apple drums, 44-gallon drums. These culverts proved quite satisfactory if 1 foot 6 inches-2 feet of cover was provided.
By the end of the month the engineers had finished building two landing strips at Dumpu, which were now taking traffic in all weather.4
For the first time the troops were permitted to mention in letters home that they were in the Ramu Valley, although no place names or references to operations could be made. One unit diarist, commenting on this order, wrote, “Radio and newspapers have made it clear for some weeks just where we are.”5
During November the artillery pounded the Japanese positions. Observers from the 2/4th Field Regiment were forward with most units in the main area and directed the fire of the 10 guns, including the two light 25-pounders. Even the most daring of forward observation officers, however, could not direct the fire with much accuracy on certain targets because of the rugged nature of the country. If the Pimple could be captured it would make an excellent artillery observation post, when not hidden by cloud, and would enable artillery fire to be guided more accurately.
A system of cooperation with the Wirraway and Boomerang aircraft of No. 4 Squadron became highly developed during the month. This army cooperation squadron, which had trained with the army on the Atherton Tableland, was highly regarded by all troops who had anything to do with it, particularly those in isolated areas. The November war diaries of several units mention that the squadron dropped packets of cigarettes, tobacco, newspapers, and copies of Guinea Gold, the army newspaper.
The Australian gunners could not entirely silence the Japanese 75-mm guns, although they did manage to dissuade them from firing for long periods. On 15th November the 54th Battery set a trap for a Japanese gun which was apparently defending a headquarters – a tender spot which invariably brought retaliation when shelled by the Australian guns. While one troop fired on the suspected Japanese headquarters, another laid on the Japanese gun when it began to fire. A Tac R aircraft which suddenly appeared over the Japanese position reported that they thought that the Japanese gun was run back into a cave after firing and so needed to be lured out. However, on this occasion “the Japanese did not arise to bait”.
An astute plan was decided upon for the 18th. Mortars from the 2/25th Battalion would bombard the Japanese Shaggy Ridge position at 11 a.m. when the planes would come over as usual, make wireless contact with brigade headquarters, and then appear to fly off; in reality they would fly low in the valley obscured from the Japanese positions. It was expected that, about three or four minutes after the Australian mortars began firing, the Japanese would wheel their gun out and open up on the mortars; the planes would then immediately try to pinpoint it and direct the artillery on to it. Everything went according to plan except that low cloud prevented the aircraft from observing; otherwise the Japanese did exactly what was expected of them. The same plan was followed at a different hour on
the 19th when there were no clouds to obscure the aircraft’s vision. Even so the Japanese withdrew the gun before the aircraft could fly from the valley where they were hiding. The airmen did, however, see a levelled portion of ground North-east of Kankiryo Saddle with an eight-foot wide track from here to the back of the ridge. A similar position was seen farther east near the headwaters of the Mosa River where a platform was cut out of the side of the ridge and a wide and well-used track ran back behind the ridge. On the 20th the planes reported a new position in the same general area where a gun platform with a track to a hideout behind the feature had been definitely constructed in the last 24 hours, and wheel tracks were seen along the route. The Australian artillery was now concentrating upon these gun platforms but although shells were in the target area, the platforms were not hit. On the 26th, when the Japanese artillery was particularly aggressive, the Boomerangs, although prompt to answer the call, were unable to find any traces of Japanese guns. So the hide-and-seek artillery duel went on throughout November. In such rugged country it would be very good shooting if the Australians secured a direct hit on the Japanese guns; the Japanese gun did not have enough range to shell the Australian artillery.6
The speed, accuracy and efficiency with which the Wirraway and Boomerang pilots found their targets in the tangled mass of the Finisterre mountains was accepted by all as part of the daily routine. It was only when an accident occurred, as on the 26th November, that the high quality of the work of these Jacks-of-all-trades was realised. On this day eight Kittyhawks returning from a mission to the North-west strafed a hut on the edge of the Faita airstrip where the 2/2nd Commando Squadron was based and then strafed the 2/6th Commando Squadron in the Kesawai area. Nobody there had taken shelter, for the aircraft had been identified as friendly and, after 20 minutes, they had done considerable damage and had killed one man and wounded two others. One native had also been killed and the remainder had gone bush. This strafing had been inadvertently carried out by American pilots new to the area. Four days later the commander of the American squadron called on the 2/6th Commando Squadron to express his regrets.
Nobody liked a static period much and Brigadier Eather, like his divisional commander, was restless. A company commander describing an incident which occurred while the 25th Brigade was in reserve gave a glimpse of the brigadier’s character:–
Bde HQ is just down the river from us. Two days ago a small war started there – rifles and LMGs firing everywhere. We heard later that the Brig got a bit restless at the inaction of the past week. He spotted a couple of blokes shooting ducks over a river – against regs of course – so called for a Bren and 2 mags. In the best Section Leader style he got an estimate of the range ... and then
let a few bursts go into the water near the sportsmen. The effect was amazing. A lot of ducks flew up, men appeared everywhere in the grass and opened up on the ducks with rifles. Eventually the Brig had to send a patrol across the river to arrest the sportsmen and found that they were two of his MPs.
On the 11th November New Guinea Force received a report that a patrol moving north from Gusap had returned because of native reports that a strong enemy force was at Wamunti. It took a report such as this to accelerate the movement from Port Moresby to Gusap of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. The Fifth Air Force flew them in on the 11th and 12th November and agreed to ration them as part of the growing Gusap fighter air base. The battalion employed one company patrolling to the north, and on 19th November a patrol reached Wamunti and found no signs of the enemy or of recent occupation.
The most extensive patrolling was taking place on the left flank where the 2/2nd Commando Squadron was entering new areas with patrols sometimes lasting more than a week. The Sepu, Usini and Urigina areas which the Japanese had previously occupied, were all now deserted and the Japanese had pulled well back into the hills, so far indeed that venturesome Australian patrols on this left flank were now nearer to Bogadjim than was the main striking force of the 7th Division to the south. Towards the end of October and in early November patrols began to move North-east from Urigina towards Uria, North-east from Usini towards Samau, northeast from Damaru towards Topopo and north from Usini towards Jobso
and Kepsau. Farther afield were the enemy’s most important bases in the hills west of Madang and Bogadjim – Bagasin and Kulau, where the natives said there were “plenty too much” Japanese. Angau representatives often accompanied patrols or went into the areas to which the patrols had been with the object of winning back the natives.
A typical patrol was that led by Lieutenant Adams7 which arrived at Samau on 9th November from its base south of the Ramu River with the task of reconnoitring the Bagasin area. Accompanied by five of his men, two police boys and two cargo boys, Adams set off from Samau on the 10th along the track leading to Nugu, Aminik, Kamusi and Bagasin. The patrol had difficulty in following the map because “the Bagasin sheet is all astray here as Aminik is not on top of a peak but is down in a valley and is close to a river”.8 As the patrol was crossing a saddle about half way between Aminik and Kamusi, the leading scouts heard voices round a corner. One of the police boys went round the corner and saw a native and two Japanese. He spoke to them and asked if they were alone and was it safe for him to come. It was too much for him when he was asked to carry cargo for the Japanese and he ran back round the corner followed by the small Japanese patrol, three of whom were killed by the Australians. When increasing fire came from more Japanese the Australians withdrew to Samau.
Adams was determined to reach Bagasin but unfortunately one of his police boys and two cargo boys fled when the firing commenced, having “diced all our cargo in the scrub”. This loss left him with only two days’ rations for the patrol, so with two of his own men and two natives he set out on the 11th to try to recover some of the stores. Passing through Aminik he came to the scene of the previous day’s action and found some of the rations. With these he believed that six men would be able to operate for at least four days forward from Samau and also make the long return journey to their base south of the Ramu. The rest of the men he sent back and prepared to move along a direct track from Samau towards Bagasin which itself was visible from a ridge not far away. The six men moved north on the 12th and camped off the track that night. The natives encountered along the track were for the most part friendly and keen to give him information about where the Japanese were and where they were not. Adams learnt what he had already suspected, that the Japanese used natives to observe movements of Australian patrols and to call out when they were coming. The natives insisted that Bagasin, Kulau and Kamusi were all occupied strongly by the enemy. After passing through Misanap on the 13th, the patrol split into two parties of three when it reached the Iapon River – one under Sergeant Davies to break bush to the left of the track and observe Bagasin, and one to the right
under Adams to observe Bagasin from that side as well as Kamusi and to watch the track.
For the next two days and on the morning of the 16th Adams observed the area and concluded that Bagasin was occupied. Despite the fact that natives encountered along the route said that Kamusi was occupied, Adams and his two companions advanced boldly towards it. Although all the evidence was that the Japanese would be in the village the three men went in and found that they were not there. Adams reached Samau that night and his base the next day – the 18th. Davies had meanwhile been less successful in trying to approach Bagasin from the west, where the country was very rough, and no suitable observation post could be found before it was time to go back to base.
This patrol has been described at some length, not because its results were so important – although it secured identifications of the 239th Regiment in the Aminik area and opened the way for further patrols towards Bagasin and Kulau – but because it was typical of the work of these long-range western patrols and the difficulties which they met and overcame.
So November continued with the 25th Brigade keeping a close watch on the Japanese positions on Shaggy Ridge and the 21st Brigade in reserve to the South-west. The Ramu Valley continued to be a favourite battle area for visiting generals. One of the most welcome was Major-General Lethbridge9 who, with his party, visited the 7th Division between 19th and 22nd November.
Towards the end of November there were indications that the Japanese might become a little more aggressive. On the 21st observation posts of the 2/6th Commando Squadron at Ketoba and overlooking Kesa reported hearing much firing from the Kesa area. The men in the Kesa observation posts were diverted by the spectacle of three Japanese sections training between Kesa and Asake – practising patrolling, skirmishing and ambushing. They were also seen to be building strong defences there. On the same day a Papuan Infantry patrol heard enemy movement about 300 yards down a hill from a village north of the 5800 Feature. On the night of the 23rd–24th November the Japanese fronting the 25th Brigade began
firing flares but, for every flare fired by the Japanese, the Australians replied with flares of similar colour – an old dodge to confuse an enemy’s signals.
Against the enemy on the southern tip of Shaggy Ridge there was little that the 2/33rd Battalion could do except to keep a tag on Japanese positions and intentions. To the right, however, the 2/25th Battalion had a little more scope for its patrols. For instance, on 24th November, a patrol from the 2/25th moved across the Faria and advanced for about 600 yards until it encountered a Japanese platoon, very strongly entrenched. The scouts calmly and silently cut the wire, and watched the weapon-pits and two Japanese looking at American Mitchell bombers trying to strafe the Japanese mountain gun position. These two Japanese and another were killed with a grenade before the patrol was forced to withdraw rapidly with four wounded under the concentrated fire from the weapon-pits.
Meanwhile, on 22nd November, Vasey had warned his two brigades that the 21st would relieve the 25th by 1st December. The next relief after this would be completed by the 22nd December “if situation permits”. The 2/27th Battalion relieved the 2/2nd Pioneers on the Kankiryo mule track, and by early December was established with its headquarters first at Bob’s Post and later at Gordon’s Post with a forward locality at Toms’ Post. The 2/14th Battalion, with headquarters and four companies on Johns’ Knoll and Picken’s Ridge and forward elements (five platoons) on the general line of Mainstream, had relieved the 2/25th and was responsible for controlling the area to the Faria River. Artillery observation posts were maintained at Terry’s Post10 and Toms’ Post. The 2/16th was occupying part of Shaggy Ridge and Lake Hill with patrols on Brian’s Hill, and was responsible for the area as far east as the Faria River. The 25th Brigade, with the Papuan company under command, moved to the foothills and river valley where the 21st Brigade had been, and the 2/6th Commando Squadron remained as they were.11
There were several changes in senior staff and command appointments in this first week of December. On the 1st Lieut-Colonel Canet, Vasey’s senior administrative officer, left to join the staff of New Guinea Force and was succeeded by Lieut-Colonel Lahey.12 On the same day Colonel Sublet left the 2/16th Battalion to attend the Tactical School and Major Symington took command of the battalion. Lieut-Colonel Picken had now arrived from the 2/7th Battalion to take command of the 2/27th in place of Lieut-Colonel Bishop who had been appointed GSO1 of the 6th Division.13
In accordance with a suggestion by General Vasey, Brigadier Dougherty decided to send a patrol into the mountainous country on the right of the 2/27th Battalion to see whether any Japanese were concentrated there. On the 4th Vasey received a report from the Air Warning Wireless Station at Wantoat that natives reported Japanese to the north of the station. This, coupled with an Angau report that a strong Japanese party was moving overland from Finschhafen, prompted Dougherty to send out a strong patrol from the 2/2nd Pioneers under Lieutenant Coles. Coles’ instructions were to depart on the 4th and find out whether the activity reported in the upper Surinam Valley as far as Mungo was “in the nature of isolated parties who were cut off in our advance or whether it is patrol activity with a view to future ops”. The patrol would be out for twelve days and was to try to capture a prisoner.14
The main enemy positions on Shaggy Ridge fronting the 2/16th Battalion were described thus by the battalion’s historian:
Shaggy Ridge was a narrow razor-back with an altitude of 5,000 feet. A thick rain forest covered the crest of the ridge. Heavy mists frequently obscured the position for days at a time. Then observation was limited to less than 100 yards. Such was the vantage point of the eminence that on clear days observation was possible as far as the sea near Madang. The ridge was at no part wider than a few yards narrowing at the foremost section position. The most forward position, a foxhole, was occupied by a lone Bren gunner. For the first time in its history the battalion held ground with a one-man front. Ahead of him was the enemy who had had weeks to prepare his defences.15
Daily patrols from the 2/16th were probing Shaggy Ridge, both on the right and the left flank. A typical patrol towards the Japanese positions on Shaggy Ridge was that led by Lance-Corporal Coad16 on 2nd December. With four companions he started out early in the morning, in single file with one scout forward, moving along the ridge very slowly because of the difficult country, fallen bamboo and low undergrowth. Going was so difficult that, for the most part, the patrol had to move on hands and knees. Stationing one rifleman to watch for enemy movements to the right, Coad led the patrol through country shattered by artillery fire until the forward scout was within four yards of the enemy position on the crest forward of the Pimple, where voices were heard. Coad’s men then heard an enemy party moving to their rear about 40 yards down the ridge on the left, and rapidly began to withdraw, but, while attempting to do so, were fired on by the Japanese positions just ahead. The scout opened up with his Owen gun and that enabled the patrol to withdraw.
Again on the 3rd the 2/16th tried several approaches towards the Pimple and a patrol moving on the west side of Shaggy Ridge reached almost to the Pimple before being fired on. It then tried several approaches
but was stopped by overhanging cliffs on each flank. Lieutenant Hill,17 leading a patrol east of Shaggy Ridge with the object of scaling the ridge behind the enemy’s front, found that the ridge grew steeper near the top until it passed the vertical position. When Hill was wounded, and other patrols failed to make any headway in climbing the rock face on the right or the steep shattered country on the left, it seemed that the only approach towards the Pimple was along the ridge, under observation.
Vasey wished to provide a diversion to attract the enemy’s attention from other operations pending in New Guinea and New Britain. On the 6th he visited Dougherty and discussed with him the possibility of a raid on Kankiryo, and also the native carrier problem. Dougherty was particularly anxious to have a jeep road pushed through to the Guy’s Post area to save the natives for other tasks. It was to work on this road that three companies of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion had been dispatched to the Lakes area.
As already indicated, there were signs that the enemy might have something up his sleeve and might attempt to throw into confusion the Australian force in the Ramu Valley and the Finisterres. On 1st December, for instance, the Bogadjim Road showed signs of recent heavy use by motor traffic. Tac R on the 3rd reported that the tracks from Orgoruna, Koba and Mataloi towards the Bogadjim Road at Old Yaula showed signs of heavy use. Patrols from the two commando squadrons proved again on the 6th and 7th December that the enemy was active in the western area.
With headquarters and one troop in the Kesawai area the 2/6th had one reinforced troop at Isariba, one day’s journey North-west of Kesawai, with a forward section at Ketoba, an hour north from Isariba. The third troop was responsible for the wide gap between the 5800 Feature and Isariba. A patrol base was occupied at the junction of the Haile and Solu Rivers with the task of patrolling towards the Japanese road running from Daumoina to Yokopi and also for protection of the squadron’s lines of communication to Isariba in case the enemy should attempt to infiltrate down the Haile or Solu Rivers. Since changing over with the Papuan company the 2/6th Squadron had felt that its right flank was vulnerable to enemy infiltration into the valley west of the 5800 Feature. One commando section was established as a standing patrol at a village about half way between the feature and Kesawai, but this section could obviously do very little to protect the wide gap between the 5800 Feature and the Solu River. With the threat which this gap entailed ever present, the 2/6th found it “a very nerve-racking period for all ranks”. On 7th December the Japanese were also prowling round the Papuan Infantry’s area near the 5800 Feature. All this activity by the Japanese on the west, so different from the main front where they were content to sit in their diggings, was unusual.
A quarter of an hour after midnight on the 7th–8th booby-traps guarding the forward Papuan platoon on a spur north of the 5800 Feature exploded. The enemy were led by hostile natives and seemed to know the position well. When the Japanese did move out, their field craft was good and often they were able to creep right up to heavily defended positions before being detected. By 3 a.m. Captain Chalk knew only that all the booby-traps of his forward platoon had exploded, but at 11 a.m. on the 8th Lance-Corporal Apauka arrived back and said that large numbers of Japanese had attacked and driven back the forward platoon. Later a sergeant and 10 native soldiers arrived and reported that the forward positions had been attacked by what seemed to be two companies Kesa of Japanese led by “kanakas”. As soon as the Papuans’ positions were occupied the Japanese sent up a flare which brought up a carrier line consisting mainly of Japanese. By this time Eather had ordered Chalk to withdraw to the Evapia River. At that time the forward platoon commander, Lieutenant C. E. Bishop, two Australian sergeants, 42 native soldiers and three carriers were missing.
Lieutenant Teasdale’s section of the 2/6th Commando Squadron (with which was Lieutenant M. A. Bishop18) watching the wide gap between the 5800 Feature and the Kesawai-Isariba area, had been interested but unscathed observers of the Japanese activities. Soon after the first explosion at C. E. Bishop’s position Teasdale’s signallers found that their line was dead and the wireless could make no contact either with squadron headquarters or with the Papuans. About 6 a.m. Captain Blainey, now commanding the 2/6th19 (Major King being in hospital), could see about 15
figures moving down kunai spurs from the top of the ridge north of Kesawai. About 7 a.m. Teasdale managed to tell Blainey by wireless that these were Japanese, but after getting this important message through the wireless could make no further contact. During the morning the Japanese were digging in north of Kesawai, whence they could dominate the track from Kesawai to the 2/6th’s outlying troop at Isariba.
At 10 a.m. Teasdale’s men could hear movement in a garden on the south side of their camp, and five minutes later a booby-trap in the form of a daisy chain of eight grenades on the east side of their camp went off. It transpired that one Japanese had been killed by the booby-trap; another was shot by one of Teasdale’s men who went forward to investigate. Teasdale’s section remained in position until 4 p.m. hearing enemy movement on all sides. When it started to rain heavily Teasdale withdrew in the general direction of squadron headquarters, and after midnight bivouacked high up on a ridge.
Between 1 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. on the 8th Boomerangs manned by Flying Officers Masson20 and Carter21 saw about 80 weapon-pits dug along both sides of the ridge overlooking Kesawai. Some big diggings were obviously for medical posts or headquarters. The airmen estimated that they had seen at least 200 Japanese, the main body being on the highest or eastern portion of the ridge. To the North-east the airmen observed Australian troops on a ridge. “They were in the prone firing position,” reported the pilot.
It now seemed that the Japanese thrust was a double-headed one – about 200 moving from the main Bogadjim Road South-west over the 5800 Feature towards Kesawai and others from the Orgoruna-Mataloi area South-east towards the Ramu Valley. Half an hour after midnight on the 6th–7th December a booby-trap before the 2/6th Squadron’s section outpost, under Lieutenant Balderstone, at Ketoba exploded. After dawn a patrol found bloodstains and abandoned equipment at the scene of the explosion and Japanese footmarks leading to the Boku River. At the same time as communications ceased between Teasdale and squadron headquarters the telephone line to Lieutenant Watson’s troop in the Isariba–Ketoba area became silent. The gap which the 2/6th had feared since their change-over with the Papuans was now ominously wide and open: it soon seemed that the Japanese were trying to outflank the outlying troops, perhaps by coming down the valley of the Solu River. At 11.30 a.m. on the 8th a patrol to Ketoba from Isariba, approaching the Australian observation post there, found two Japanese with the body of a third. Both were killed and the papers and gear were sent back to troop headquarters. About the same time Lieutenant Ball’s22 section withdrew from the junction of the Solu and Haile Rivers towards Isariba because
the Japanese had obviously already bypassed his position. By 3.15 p.m. small enemy parties were seen on the ridge overlooking Ketoba.
For the 2/6th Squadron the situation became more serious as the afternoon dragged on. Eather was informed of their plight but decided not to send any troops forward until he had further information. Blainey’s headquarters was in a dangerous position as there was no friendly force between them and the rapidly increasing enemy on the ridge above the valley. At 4 p.m. between 120 and 150 Japanese moved down from the main spur through rain forest to the kunai round the headquarters camp. There were many gullies to give them covered approaches. Blainey still had no news of his troop in the Isariba area. By 6 p.m. this strong Japanese force reached a position within 400 yards of squadron headquarters. An hour later Vasey placed the squadron under Eather’s command so that the 25th Brigade now controlled both reconnaissance units on its immediate left. At 7.10 a small party, setting booby-traps to delay the Japanese advance into the Ramu Valley, was fired on and two men were killed. Ten minutes later two natives wearing red lap laps entered the perimeter making far more noise than usual, and asked if this was the area of the commando squadron, stating that they were members of the Papuan Battalion. They were immediately suspect and were shot.
When Captain Chalk reported that he was withdrawing to the Evapia River, Blainey decided to do likewise as his position was equally untenable. After dark the enemy began encircling his camp and, just before 8 p.m., Blainey rang brigade headquarters to report the situation before withdrawing. Squadron headquarters pulled back at 8.45 p.m., just before the enemy made a series of heavy attacks on the vacated position. By 11 p.m. squadron headquarters and the troop with it dug in close to their old position near the Evapia. The position could be serious, for the Japanese had cut off large elements of the commando squadron and Papuans. To Eather that night it appeared that the Japanese were making a concerted drive to push the Australians from the hills into the Ramu Valley, and he warned Colonel Marson that two companies of the 2/25th Battalion would move forward to the Evapia River next morning to establish a base and patrol forward. Eather asked for another section of 25-pounders to support his brigade as his only section would move forward in support of the 2/25th.
At this stage no one had much idea of what was happening in the Isariba-Ketoba areas, but Major Laidlaw at Faita had been warned to expect that parties from the 2/6th Squadron might move to Faita. Vasey and his senior staff officer, Robertson, were busy that night with signals. An hour before midnight on the 8th they signalled Laidlaw: “Owing necessity withdrawal 2/6 Cav Sqn your main task now protection radar station and patrolling should be confined to local patrols to give adequate warning of any Jap movement your direction.” Laidlaw had several patrols out, but these were rapidly recalled.
On the same night Vasey sent an “emergency ops” signal to Morshead in Port Moresby asking that the 18th Brigade be sent forward. To amplify
this signal he sent Morshead a note entitled “Review of Situation – Ramu Valley”. He began: “The increased activity of the Japs in the high ground east of Kesawai 1, together with other factors, warrants a reconsideration of the position of this division.” He then said that the Japanese in this area (believed not less than 200) might be the “foremost elements” of a larger Japanese force striking towards the Ramu Valley. “The area which he has now occupied is ... where the valley is narrowest,” he wrote. A further advance by the Japanese would cut across the valley and prevent maintenance of the 2/6th Squadron by natives from the Dumpu area. As the area of operations was about ten miles from the Dumpu strip, and as there were so few native carriers, he would be unable to maintain any force permanently in that area for the support of the 2/6th Squadron. “Consequently if the Jap should advance in strength in this area I shall be unable to prevent, though I will delay, his advance into the valley itself.” He went on to outline other factors: the rapid repair by the Japanese of any air damage on the Bogadjim Road, the increase in anti-aircraft protection along the Bogadjim Road, the fact that the Gusap air base must form an attractive objective for the Japanese, and reports by the AWW station at Wantoat of Japanese activity in that general area.
It is hard to believe that Vasey did actually fear for the safety of his positions; rather did he seem to be seizing the opportunity to scrape together reasons why his force should be augmented. He repeated the request that the 18th Brigade be moved to Dumpu, and asked that the battalions in the Ramu Valley should immediately be brought to full strength, that 1,000 more native carriers be made available, that another commando squadron be placed at his disposal to patrol into the Finisterres from the Marawasa and Kaiapit areas, and that continuous heavy air strikes should be made on the Bogadjim Road. These requests for reinforcements were not granted. “NGF has just forgotten me,” Vasey wrote in a private letter a few days later, “not even moral support from rear ... left alone and don’t understand it.” The official reply to his signal came early on the morning of the 9th December before dawn. “No action being taken to move 18 Brigade Group at present. Other commitments preclude air strikes Bogad-jim Road today.”
Late on the afternoon of 9th December Vasey sent a signal to Morshead that “rifle tabs obtained from enemy killed night 6/7 December at Ketoba identified 239 Jap Inf Regiment”. About three-quarters of an hour later, at 7.30 p.m., he sent another personal signal for Morshead: “Believe I could clean up 239 Regiment if I had 18 Brigade and natives and maul them with 18 Brigade only.” Morshead replied just before midnight, “Much as I would like to do so sorry not practicable meet your request.” By the 9th Vasey’s Intelligence staff was beginning to think that two Japanese regiments, probably depleted, were opposing the division.
From 6.40 a.m. until 8.30 a.m. on the 9th a Boomerang aircraft examined the Japanese area from a low altitude. At the conclusion of
the flight the pilot, Flying Officer Staley,23 dropped messages reporting that the two ridges North-east and east of Kesawai were now “thoroughly studded with foxholes”, most of them well-camouflaged, but discernible from the air because of the tracks leading to them. Staley, whose aircraft was fired on from several positions, estimated that there were at least 300 Japanese in this area.
Soon after 11.45 a.m. when Blainey reached the Evapia River, he linked in on the main telephone line and reported his position to brigade headquarters. As two companies of the 2/25th Battalion under Major Robertson were on their way forward to the Evapia, Blainey was instructed to withdraw to the Mene River. He knew little of the whereabouts of his other two troops except that Lieutenant Teasdale was withdrawing. Brigade said that they would try to make signal contact with the isolated troops.
In the Isariba-Ketoba areas with Watson’s troop was a party of 14 artillerymen led by Captain Longworth,24 who had been reconnoitring the tracks from Kesawai to Koropa and Isariba during the past two days to see whether guns could be moved there; they were at Isariba when the attack occurred. Late on the afternoon of the 8th Vasey had ordered the withdrawal of these troops, but the order had not gone beyond 25th Brigade headquarters. Thus, the troops in the Ketoba and Isariba areas were unaware on the 9th that they should withdraw, and were determined to hold what they had. At 2.30 a.m. Lieutenant Balderstone’s forward section at Ketoba was heavily attacked by Japanese coming from the Orgoruna area, and was forced to withdraw towards Isariba.
At 7.15 a.m. the enemy began a series of attacks on Isariba. The attacks lasted an hour and a half but were unsuccessful because of the stubborn defence and because the Vickers and grenade dischargers rendered untenable the only ground available for the enemy’s supporting arms. Half way through this attack Lieutenant Ball’s section, withdrawing from the junction of the Haile and Solu Rivers, approached Isariba from the east, but was unable to get through and made for the Ramu. Soon after this first attack the defenders of Isariba were diverted by the spectacle of 20 Kittyhawks led in by Boomerangs bombing and strafing the Japanese-held ridges above Kesawai. The attack seemed very successful and 17 bombs apparently landed directly on the target. Another successful attack was made by 16 Kittyhawks in the early afternoon.
Earlier, at 10 a.m., Watson had withstood his second attack, this one lasting 45 minutes. At 11.15 a.m. the Japanese resorted to a bayonet charge on Isariba but they were wiped out, mainly by fire from the machine-guns. This fight for Isariba was still going on when Blainey linked by telephone with brigade headquarters. As a result the brigade tried to make signal contact with Isariba and succeeded at 3.30 p.m., half an hour after the Japanese had launched another unsuccessful attack. Watson gave an account of the happenings and asked for instructions and more
ammunition. The signal message from brigade, however, ran: “Blainey back on Mene. You come to rejoin him.” Watson was warned that when returning he should avoid previous squadron and Papuan positions but that “Evapia OK.” After defeating another half-hearted Japanese attack, Watson’s troop at 4.15 p.m. withdrew undaunted south towards the Ramu and then up the river valley towards the Mene.
By dusk on the 9th the two companies of the 2/25th Battalion had dug in east of the Evapia River but had seen no Japanese. The Papuans (3 officers, 9 Australian NCOs, 79 native soldiers and 27 carriers, of whom one officer, 4 Australian NCOs, 30 natives and 3 carriers were still missing) were in the area of the foothills between the Mosia and Faria Rivers. The 2/6th Commando Squadron, less two troops, was in the Mene River area and would move first thing on the 10th farther up the valley of the Mene to higher ground. The two missing troops were presumably withdrawing to rejoin the squadron. For the morning of the 10th Brigadier Eather instructed the two companies of the 2/25th to patrol across the Evapia, the Papuans to patrol along both banks of the Ramu River, and the 2/6th Squadron to patrol the high ground in the Mene Valley. With this screen of patrols Eather hoped to find out just where the Japanese were and what they intended.
Action on the 10th started early when, just before dawn, a Japanese aircraft dropped about five bombs on a dump near brigade headquarters. At midday Lieutenant Searles’25 platoon of the 2/25th ambushed a Japanese patrol of about 40 at a creek crossing about half way between the Evapia and Kesawai, killing 6 Japanese.
During the day more missing men from the commando squadron and the Papuan Infantry came back. In the morning Tac R aircraft saw about 50 Australians in the Koben area. The men were Balderstone’s and a message was dropped instructing them to return to the Mene area via the south bank of the Ramu. Still missing at the end of the day were Teasdale’s party of 2 officers and 15 men, Ball’s party of one officer and 27 men and Watson with a small reconnaissance party. Native soldiers from the Papuan Infantry were still trickling in, and by the end of the day one officer, 4 Australian NCOs and 12 native soldiers were still missing, and it was known that 10 native soldiers had been wounded.
The ease with which the Japanese force had entered the Kesawai area, often moving by night along difficult mountain trails, was evidence that they had had help from native guides. On 10th December divisional headquarters signalled all units under command: “Three suspect natives killed to date all wearing red lap laps. Angau have been ordered to ensure none of our natives wear red lap laps.” The alacrity with which the natives serving the Australians dispensed with any red lap laps was remarkable.
Because of the enemy activity west of the Evapia River, Vasey decided not to carry out the proposed relief of the two brigades about 21st December. It seemed to Vasey at this stage that the main enemy thrust
might be into the 25th Brigade’s area and he hoped that when the 21st Brigade was relieved it would not have to fight from the reserve position but have a rest.
After the capture of Wareo and the defeat of the 20th Japanese Division on the east of the Huon Peninsula, an examination was carried out by New Guinea Force to see how far it was necessary to exploit up the coast of the Huon Peninsula in order to complete the mission assigned to Allied Land Forces in this area. It will be recalled that General MacArthur, in May, had given Allied Land Forces the role of exploiting to Madang. Later instructions made the neutralisation of Madang a task for Alamo Force, New Guinea Force’s role in the area being confined to operations in the Ramu Valley and/or northwards up the coast of the Huon Peninsula to assist Alamo Force. When General Krueger visited New Guinea Force headquarters at Port Moresby. on 6th December, he was asked what help he required from New Guinea Force in carrying out his mission, but replied that, because of other operations which he was undertaking, plans for the neutralisation of Madang had not yet been finalised. At this stage Krueger was preparing for the invasion of New Britain and there was also a possibility that an American force would be detached to occupy Saidor on the north coast of New Guinea astride the line of withdrawal of the 20th and 51st Japanese Divisions from the Huon Peninsula. The lack of any American plan to deal with Madang may have reminded the Australian commanders of the fuss created at MacArthur’s headquarters at the end of August when the Australians had not prepared any detailed plan for the capture of Madang at a time when the invasion of Lae was taking place. It now seemed that the capture of Madang might well be a job for New Guinea Force, but for the time being there was no change in the roles of the two Australian divisions. This was the situation when General Blamey arrived at Port Moresby (on 11th December) and stayed in New Guinea while General Morshead had some leave in Australia. On the 12th General MacArthur’s Advanced GHQ also opened in Port Moresby. There was now a wealth of senior headquarters in New Guinea. Clustered in Port Moresby with Advanced GHQ and LHQ was the headquarters of New Guinea Force. Across the Owen Stanleys at Dobodura was General Berryman’s II Australian Corps headquarters. General Krueger’s headquarters of Alamo Force was at Morobe.
In the Ramu Valley both sides were watchful on the 11th. During the day there were more reports of the missing men of the 2/6th Commando Squadron and the Papuan Infantry. One officer, two NCOs and a wounded native reported in to the forward company of the 2/25th. Ball’s party finally reported in. Watson’s small four-man party and Teasdale’s party of 18 were still missing, but during the day Corporal Pickering26 and two men from Teasdale’s party arrived with news that they had been ambushed and Teasdale wounded.
Since losing contact with his headquarters on the 8th, Teasdale’s men had been steadily making their way through the tangled hills towards the Ramu Valley. On the 9th the section had moved off at dawn and continued all through the day until almost midnight. Next day they started at daylight and reached the top of a mountain where they tried their wireless again but without result. By 4 p.m. they reached the bank of the Solu River, very hungry, for all their food had been consumed the previous night. They crossed the Solu and moved down until they reached the track which had been the line of communication to Isariba. Along this track there were many Japanese bootmarks, so Teasdale decided to cross it and move through a swamp towards the Ramu. The men cut into the swamp, but it became so deep that they decided to move along the main track towards the east. It was almost dark when the track was reached and the section advanced about 200 yards when three shots rang out and Teasdale was wounded. Lieutenant M. A. Bishop now took charge and guarded Teasdale while he was bandaged and given a shot of morphia. Putting the wounded man on a bush stretcher the patrol moved back into the swamp for about 100 yards. All through the night it rained and at daylight Bishop sent Pickering and two men to reach base if possible and get help. A standing patrol saw 120 Japanese moving along the track. Deciding that they would have much trouble if they advanced along the track, the patrol set off on a South-west bearing through the swamp with the four natives carrying Teasdale. They reached three native huts where they found a bag of corn; one cob per man was issued and two cobs to each of the four devoted natives. On the 12th they reached the Ramu and moved along it until opposite the old squadron headquarters. Bishop sent two men and a native to find out whether it was still occupied by Australians, but when they were fired on he continued to move up the Ramu. Late in the afternoon Teasdale died. Struggling on, the patrol camped for the night in the kunai. They plodded on next morning and at 10.30 a.m. the 17 Australians and 4 natives, sick and exhausted, came to an artillery position. Here they were given food and were sent to hospital by jeep.
Meanwhile, on the 11th General Vasey was tightening his defences. As well as making their thrust into the Kesawai area the Japanese had, the previous night, delivered a small bayonet attack on the forward Australian section on Shaggy Ridge. On the right flank there were fragmentary reports of Japanese being in the upper Surinam Valley and in the Wantoat area, while on the left flank a patrol led by Captain McKenzie of the 2/2nd Commando Squadron had found that Kulau was strongly held by about 100 Japanese.
While the 2/25th Battalion was patrolling west from the Evapia River on the 11th, Vasey and Eather went forward and discussed operations with Marson. The 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion was in the Lakes area ready to prevent any Japanese infiltration between the two brigades, and to continue work on the jeep track. On the 12th a patrol from the 2/6th Commando Squadron (now commanded by Captain A. S. Palmer)
prepared to occupy the 5500 Feature, and on the left the 2/2nd Squadron, less McKenzie’s patrol was concentrated at Faita with standing patrols at all likely crossing places and patrols across the Ramu as far as Usini only. Although the Japanese thus seemed a little more active than usual throughout the whole area of operations, and although they had driven a deep wedge into the Australian positions in the Kesawai-Isariba area, the position seemed to be stabilising itself once more.
Facing the Japanese positions to the west in the Kesawai area were the two companies of the 2/25th Battalion. They were forward half a day’s march from the main battalion position with the role of giving a firm base for extensive patrolling. On the right was Captain Cox’s, dug in on a bald knife-edged hill with positions extending over 500 yards and dominating the track and jungle below. To the south was Major Robertson’s, dug in in a jungle clearing on the flat ground at the deserted village of Kesawai astride the main track. The force was under Robertson’s command, and by nightfall on the 12th his own company had been in position for four days and Cox’s company for two days and a half. During this time patrolling by day and setting of ambush positions by night had given the men little rest. Lieutenant Feely,27 the artillery officer with Robertson, was engaging opportunity targets.
Robertson sent out four patrols on the 12th, three of platoon strength and one of section strength. There were patrol clashes on the 12th between the men of Robertson’s own company and the enemy, but Cox’s company, although patrolling extensively, did not make contact. An hour after midnight, however, the men of Cox’s company were suddenly alert for there were sounds of much movement ahead. In the moonlight sentries were soon able to see a large force and the company quietly stood to. The attack was coming in mainly towards Cox’s northern platoon – Lieutenant Cameron’s28 – which fortunately was supported by a Vickers, under Corporal Johnston.29 From a distance of 50 yards the platoon suddenly poured fire from three Bren guns and the Vickers into the enemy. The fire was soon returned, not only by rifles and grenades but from about six light machine-guns and two heavy machine-guns or Woodpeckers sited farther behind. This first enemy thrust was smashed before it started.
To the south the men of the other company were also standing to, and a quarter of an hour after the initial assault opened fire on about 30 Japanese moving down the track across the company’s front. Robertson reported later that “grenades were thrown into the party which dispersed with considerable shouting, squealing and apparent confusion”. The main grenadier was Corporal O’Brien30 who threw dozens. “Our fire was
immediately returned and large numbers of grenades were thrown into our perimeter.” On the right flank, according to Cox, “the work of Corporal Johnston in keeping his gun firing was one of the outstanding factors in holding the Japanese attack”. Johnston’s feat was the more remarkable because three of his crew of six were wounded and the fusee spring of the gun was shot away. In this first hour most of the attacks fell on Cox’s company where the enemy made a series of very strong assaults. Machine-gun fire repelled them when they attempted to climb the steep approaches on the flanks and the Queenslanders rolled grenades down on them. Towards the end of the hour the enemy’s fire died down but the attack of the Japanese force which seemed to number at least 400 was by no means spent. On finding the approach to Cox’s positions difficult, the enemy began crawling forward with much chattering and clicking of rifle bolts, apparently bent on drawing machine-gun fire so that the Woodpeckers and light machine-guns on the knoll 400 yards away “could get on to our positions before he got up and rushed us”.
The men held their fire until the enemy got up and charged. Machine-gun fire again broke up this attack. The enemy outnumbered the Australians, however, and Cox was worried, for the enemy was on three sides of his position and the attack on the other company almost completed the encirclement.
During the lull in the firing Robertson’s men heard movement across the whole company front and it seemed that the Japanese were trying to get between the two companies. Robertson could also hear the enemy digging in a semi-circle round his front and fired with all weapons including his grenade-dischargers. In return for this bombardment the enemy returned “a terrific volume of fire”, using at least five Woodpeckers dominating Kesawai village, and some mortars. At 2 a.m. another 100 men moved up to reinforce the Japanese stalled before Cox’s company.
Robertson’s line to battalion headquarters was cut at this time, but not before he had outlined the general situation to Marson. The artillery
line was still intact and Robertson asked Feely to bring defensive fire on the immediate front. While giving his fire order Feely was mortally wounded but Robertson took over the telephone and brought the fire down to within 100 yards of his front. He then switched the fire to the strong enemy position facing the southern end of Cox’s company, and, as far as he was able, on to the other positions facing the northern company. Unfortunately the artillery telephone line was cut at 2.45 a.m. and the guns ceased shelling the enemy positions for fear of hitting their own men. Robertson tried to make contact with a No. 511 wireless set but again and again was unsuccessful. At 3 a.m., however, Lieutenant Marsden,31 in charge of the troop of guns beyond the Yogia River, decided to take the risk and brought down fire on the last recorded target, and thereafter switched from the positions ahead of Robertson’s company to what he hoped were defensive fire tasks and which had been used effectively earlier in the battle. This fire was of the greatest assistance to the two beleaguered companies and gave the men heart.
For four hours and a half from the initial assault intermittent Japanese attacks and almost constant fire continued. All attacks were thrown back with what must have been heavy casualties. Ammunition had necessarily to be conserved by the defenders and so was expended less lavishly than by the Japanese who habitually fired off far too much. When telephone communication was cut between the two companies, about 3.30 a.m., they had to rely on seven walkie-talkie wireless sets used for intercommunication; these performed well but they were mostly inaudible because of the din of battle. Communication, rendered thus difficult by the noise of battle, was maintained by the commanders who constantly moved among the weapon-pits. It was while doing this that one of Robertson’s platoon commanders, Lieutenant Saunders,32 was killed. Aware that the situation might become desperate because of the Japanese Woodpeckers dominating the clearing in daylight Robertson had some of the men in each section prepare their section’s gear for a possible withdrawal. By 4 a.m. the enemy were in a position below Cox’s company and round his right flank and were bringing fire from a Woodpecker directly on to Robertson’s area. With his right flank vulnerable Robertson thought that his position would be untenable in daylight and so attempted a gradual movement into the jungle fringe on his western perimeter. He managed to move part of his force there but found that his men were now within 20 feet of the Japanese in the jungle. Lieutenant Searles actually trod on a Japanese when moving round his area and when the Japanese complained he was shot. Half an hour later a Japanese shouted out insults about “white dingoes over there. Honourable Japanese gentlemen over here.” A burst of Bren gun fire and a shriek followed this call and a Japanese officer was later found dead there.
On three sides of the Australian position the Japanese crept close under cover of darkness after the setting of the moon. At 5 a.m. Cox managed to tell Robertson on the walkie-talkie that his ammunition was getting low, he had five stretcher cases, and had recently seen at least another 100 Japanese walking round below him to join the 200 who were already attacking. As the forward platoon was now reduced to 16 men aided by three machine-gunners, a Japanese attack there might have some success and would undoubtedly render untenable the position not only of his company but also of Robertson’s. Robertson estimated that there were about 150 Japanese in his immediate vicinity and agreed with Cox that the position would deteriorate in daylight, particularly as the Australians’ supply of grenades was almost finished, and it would be impossible after dawn to get the stretcher cases out safely.
Withdrawal was a difficult and unpalatable course. The decision had to be made before the approaching dawn, however, so Robertson ordered Cox to begin withdrawing at 5.30 a.m. to a pre-arranged alternative area about a mile to the rear where both companies would take up another defensive position. Marson had approved this alternative position two days before. Robertson’s own company would cover the withdrawal and hold as a rearguard until 5.45 a.m. Stretchers were made, the dead were buried, and the companies began thinning out to their assembly areas at the agreed times. Cox’s company arrived at the rendezvous after dawn at 7.30 a.m. and was joined soon afterwards by Robertson’s, which had withdrawn through thick jungle and pit-pit swamp, sometimes three feet deep in water. Lieutenant Burns, who had volunteered with a patrol to take up a supply of grenades at dawn from the battalion, followed the track almost into Kesawai before he saw a Japanese soldier with rifle at the slope on guard in the village. Burns had arrived with his precious cargo half an hour after the position was abandoned. The companies had retired with all their weapons intact. They had lost 5 killed, including 2 officers, and 14 wounded, but the company commanders estimated that they had killed at least 100 Japanese. As the two weary companies settled into their new area Robertson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant H. W. Steel, tapped the line behind the break and arranged for the artillery to bring down intense fire on the area they had evacuated. About 170 rounds were fired. A patrol next day found the area completely abandoned by the Japanese. The intense battle and the artillery barrage had finally halted and turned the last Japanese thrust in this area.
Withdrawals are always unpopular, particularly with an army on the offensive, no matter how static or fluctuating a local situation may be. Marson who was moving forward early in the morning of the 13th to be with his two companies, had later to answer a detailed series of questions from Eather about types of weapon-pits, fields of fire, booby-traps, outposts, perimeters, and so on. The answers must have satisfied the brigadier and it is difficult, in any case, to see what other course was open to Robertson in those tense moments before dawn on 13th December. .
One of the ever-ready aircraft of No. 4 Squadron, piloted by Flying-Officer Carter, took off early on the 13th. Carter and his observer picked out Robertson’s companies below them waving to the aircraft and carrying stretchers. The timbered stretch from Kesawai to the area which the Japanese had captured showed signs of occupation, and the track from the Boku River through Ketoba, Isariba, Koropa and the Solu River was broad, well-worn and recently used. This and similar tactical reconnaissance seemed to indicate that the main Japanese thrust might have come from the Orgoruna-Mataloi area rather than from the Japanese roadhead. In the afternoon Flying Officers Miller-Randle33 and Staley saw isolated parties of Japanese, well-used tracks and signs of occupation. Considering these and other reports, Eather thought that the Japanese might intend to outflank the 25th Brigade and come in between it and the 21st, thus threatening the Gusap airstrip, divisional headquarters and the main Australian lines of communication. He thought it inadvisable to extend his brigade’s front or to weaken his rear by sending more troops forward, and decided therefore that Robertson’s and Cox’s companies would be withdrawn during the night to the east bank of the Evapia River, some two miles to the rear, where the remainder of the 2/25th was now concentrated. In the dark the two companies withdrew to the Evapia.
Documents captured during and since the Japanese attacks from 8th to 13th December proved that the attacking force was of three battalions. It seemed to Vasey’s staff that the force in the Kesawai area was from the 78th Japanese Regiment, while the force which attacked in the Ketoba-Isariba area was from the 239th Regiment. The Japanese made no attempt to follow up their success. It seemed most probable therefore that the enemy’s intention was, as the 7th Division put it later, “to carry out a rather large-scale raid with the object of clearing out our OPs and patrol bases which had evidently been causing him some concern”. Because the enemy had few reserves, he could not follow up his initial advantage even had he wished to do so.
As more documents were captured in succeeding operations it appeared that the 239th Regiment had not taken nearly such an active role in the Kesawai and Isariba operations as was thought. The evidence, though scanty, indicated that the attacks on the 2/6th Squadron and the Papuans and then the 2/25th Battalion were made by the main body of the I/78th Battalion which came from the area between Yokopi and Yaula. Some members of the 239th Regiment may have been in the attacks on Ketoba and Isariba but the main body of the regiment was undoubtedly still in the Madang area with an outpost at Kulau and patrols into the Aminik area.
Until the 12th Vasey had considered that the Japanese activities about Kesawai were “merely a defensive action” but on the 13th he wrote to Morshead that he then considered they were “the preliminary of something considerably bigger”. If the advance continued he planned to hold it on the Yogia River. During the 14th Vasey visited both his brigade commanders. With Dougherty he discussed changes made desirable by the enemy’s increased interest in the Ramu west of the Evapia. Afterwards Dougherty wrote:–
It appeared that if there were a threat at all, then the main enemy threat appeared to be on our left. The General wanted me to swing my centre of gravity to the left in order to be in a better position to meet this threat, either by dealing with him on my own front or by moving to the support of 25th Brigade. In addition, the General wanted me to show signs of a push on our brigade front in order to make the Jap more careful in his moves towards the Ramu. With this in view, he asked me to consider an attack along the Shaggy Ridge feature by the 2/16th Battalion.
After Vasey had gone, Dougherty issued a warning order for the re-disposition of his brigade. Together with its toehold on Shaggy Ridge the 2/16th Battalion would take over from the 2/14th in the Johns’ Knoll–Faria River area leaving one company on Toms’ Post to watch the right flank and fill the gap to the 2/27th Battalion on the right. The 2/14th would then move into reserve in the vicinity of the Lakes and the 2/2nd Pioneer would occupy Brian’s Hill and Herald Hill to close the gap between the two brigades. These moves took place on 15th December when Dougherty also moved his headquarters from Kumbarum to the saddle above the Lakes.
Vasey discussed arrangements with Eather to link the two brigades to prevent any large-scale Japanese movement into the Ramu Valley from the north. He said that if the attack on Shaggy Ridge was successful, the Japanese would have to withdraw slightly along their main line of communication and would be deterred from attacking in strength on the 25th Brigade front. Meanwhile, the 25th Brigade would remain in its present position, and if any strong attack were made, the 2/25th Battalion would withdraw to the east bank of the Yogia River where the main strength of the brigade would be concentrated. It was soon apparent, however, that this withdrawal would not be necessary, for a patrol from the 2/25th found the scene of the battle of the 13th unoccupied.
The 15th was quiet. In the afternoon Lieutenant Burns led a patrol from the 2/25th across the Evapia River to this position, and found 11 dead Japanese. Burns also found 164 Japanese weapon-pits where the fight had raged on the 13th; and salvaged most of the gear – mainly small tents – which the companies had left behind.
By 16th December patrols and tactical reconnaissance had proved that Japanese activity round Kesawai was limited; Eather therefore decided that the area across the Evapia towards Kesawai and the 5800 Feature should be reconnoitred in strength. Captain B. G. C. Walker and 30 men of the 2/25th then set out on a two-day patrol and moved right through the scene of the Kesawai action and on to the Solu River without finding any Japanese. Eather then decided to send the 2/33rd Battalion, under cover of darkness, to the 5800 Feature to attack any Japanese there, and to move the Papuans across the Evapia to establish a patrol base for the Koben–Koropa–Solu River area.
With three of his companies Colonel Cotton of the 2/33rd moved off an hour and a half after midnight on the 18th–19th December towards the summit of the 5800 Feature, where he arrived just before dawn. At 2.10 p.m. a section made contact with the enemy about 700 yards south
of the highest pinnacle on 5800. The patrol withdrew while the artillery fired 120 rounds. By 5 p.m. the enemy had had enough and withdrew enabling one company to occupy the pinnacle. Next day the battalion patrolled the whole area and found evidence of Japanese occupation and a hasty withdrawal.
Captain Milford led a patrol from the 2/25th Battalion at dusk on the 19th to follow the Japanese line of withdrawal north along the Solu and Haile Rivers and to try to observe the Japanese motor road. On the 20th it followed the Solu River, crossing and recrossing it several times until at 4 p.m. near the top of a steep wooded ridge four Japanese machine-guns fired on the leading section. The section withdrew and all got out except two. Milford considered the Japanese position “unassailable” because of the precipitous slopes on all sides and sent the patrol back to the Solu River while he and five others searched unsuccessfully for the missing men. The patrol returned to the 2/25th at 7 p.m. on the 21st and was joined half an hour later by one of the missing; he had escaped by rolling down a steep slope and following the course of the Solu. Thus by 21st December the western area of Kesawai and the 5800 Feature into which the Japanese had so suddenly thrust was deserted by them and they had pulled back, probably to a line from Orgoruna through the Solu ambush position to Shaggy Ridge.
Patrolling continued on the right of the divisional front where the 2/27th Battalion scoured the area. One patrol, led by Corporal Kemp34 with four men, followed the track north from the forward company position just south of Mainstream and ran into Japanese machine-gun fire. Of the five men one was killed, one wounded and Kemp was missing, believed killed. The two unscathed men and the wounded man, after taking a wrong turning, ran into another Japanese position behind barbed wire defences and here the wounded man was killed. A land mine was electrically exploded by the enemy and stunned one of the two remaining men. After regaining consciousness this man stumbled east into a steep gully and then south, finally arriving at his company position on the 19th. The other man remained in position inside the Japanese wire for 33 hours during which period he was grenaded and fired on but not hit. He retaliated with his only grenade and the Japanese did not disturb him but improved their own positions by digging. About midday on the 19th he survived bombardment by the Australian artillery. Just before midnight on the 19th he crawled back through the Japanese wire and followed the route which his companion had taken, arriving back exhausted on the 20th.
Meanwhile on 17th December Dougherty sent instructions to Symington of the 2/16th to plan an attack on Shaggy Ridge. Next day, Dougherty having sprained his ankle, Symington went to brigade headquarters and discussed his proposed plan. Dougherty said that the attack would not take place before 26th December, as he wanted his troops to enjoy Christmas before assaulting Shaggy Ridge. Vasey instructed Dougherty
to be at the Dumpu airstrip on the morning of the 21st to fly to Port Moresby for medical examination and treatment.
Patrols from the 2/16th were active on the ridge searching for ways to attack the Pimple but, as previously stated, it was already obvious that this important feature could probably be taken only by frontal assault. With such close-range patrols it was necessary to restrict the activities of the artillery and on the 19th Major Gaunt35 of the 2/4th Field Regiment arrived at Symington’s headquarters to arrange artillery support.
On the 19th and 20th General Blamey visited the two brigades and discussed operations with Vasey and his brigadiers. So simple was the plan and so thoroughly had preparations been made, that the departure of the hobbling Dougherty on the 21st and the assumption of command of the brigade by Lieut-Colonel Rhoden – a battalion commander of only a few weeks’ standing – just before the battle did not affect the arrangements.
On Christmas Day there was little activity. All fighting units enjoyed the best Christmas they had known in New Guinea. The diarist of the 2/16th Battalion outlined the menu for the day: “Breakfast – porridge, Burdekin ducks, buns and tea; Dinner – giblet soup, roast turkey and seasoning, green peas, mashed potatoes, shredded carrots, gravy, plum-pudding and sauce, tea and buns.” A diarist noted, “It is worth while comparing this with Christmas Day at Gona last year.” Church services were also held and in the 2/27th Battalion’s lines, where the text of the sermon was “Peace on earth and good will towards men”, it was given concurrently with harassing fire on Japanese positions.
From the evidence of his patrols and also from the number of machine-guns which had been fired at the 2/16th Battalion on Shaggy Ridge, Symington thought that the enemy confronting him comprised about three platoons spread from 300 to 400 yards along the razor-back ridge behind the Pimple. He ordered Captain Christian’s36 company to attack and capture the Pimple and exploit for about 400 yards along the ridge; Captain Anderson’s37 company would then move forward and consolidate the ground gained. Christian would have a detachment of 3-inch mortars and a section of Vickers machine-guns under his command, and in support a company of the 2/16th, a troop of the 8th Battery, a troop of the 54th Battery, the 41st Squadron (Fifth Air Force) and No. 4 Squadron RAAF Christian planned that the Pimple would be captured by his leading platoon with one section forward on the right, one on the left and the third section following closely with three machine-guns and the platoon’s 2-inch mortar. The mortar ammunition would be carried by the supporting company and, on receiving the success signal from the leading platoon, Christian’s second platoon would move through the objective for a distance of approximately 400 yards.
The supporting fire plan for the assault on Shaggy Ridge was one of the most comprehensive and detailed yet arranged in New Guinea. The diarist of the 2/4th Field Regiment claimed that the artillery concentration was the “largest in the SWPA war”.38 The men carried the maximum of arms and ammunition and the minimum of other equipment.39 Having had exasperating experience with the 208 wireless set, this was now discarded for the 536 set. Each of the two leading platoon commanders and the company commander had one of these sets and another one was available for use between the 3-inch mortar team and its observation post. Christian had a telephone line back to his battalion headquarters and to the Vickers machine-gun post. To assist the 2/16th, the 2/27th was to pretend to attack the main Japanese position in the Faria River and Mainstream area.
On the 26th no actual start time could be fixed for the attack: if the clouds were down, the aircraft would not be able to assault Shaggy Ridge. The decision about the weather would be Colonel Rhoden’s responsibility, and if the attack were to take place the aircraft would be over the target 30 minutes after notification. As dawn broke on the 27th the Pimple was obscured by heavy mists, but they lifted before 8 a.m.
Breakfast for Christian’s men was soon over, and the company moved forward to their start-line running east and west of the base of the Pimple. They were clad in jungle greens, boots and American pattern gaiters and were wearing khaki hats or tin helmets, whichever they wished. Besides their arms, ammunition and webbing equipment, each man
carried only a haversack containing minimum necessities, a shovel for quick digging-in, and a field dressing carried in the right rear pocket of his trousers. The stretcher bearers moved with the first two platoons. Six minutes after 8 o’clock two Boomerangs strafed the Pimple with tracer bullets to indicate the target for the Kittyhawks. Dive bombing started three minutes later and the program of supporting fire then went on uninterrupted. Dive bombing, strafing and intense artillery concentrations were impressive sights and the valley and foothills reverberated with a roar which could be heard up and down the Ramu Valley, where many hills held spectators.
At 8.55 the Kittyhawks made their last run behind the Pimple from the east. One minute after 9 o’clock Lieutenant Geyton’s40 platoon moved over the start-line and left the cover of the rain forest to scale the rock face which led to the Pimple and which was now denuded of jungle growth by the bombardment. Those behind could see the men clambering up the steep incline to the Pimple slipping on shale and stones thrown up by the bombing and shelling. About a quarter of an hour after the start the leading platoon was about 50 yards from the top of the Pimple and had already used bamboo ladders which it had carried forward. The ladders were now discarded as too cumbersome and the platoon clambered forward with one section on the right, one on the left, and the third in reserve. On the left Sergeant W. T. McMahon’s section was held up when the Japanese threw grenades down from a well-sited pillbox. In this shower of grenades, McMahon and Warrant-Officer G. E. Morris were wounded but Corporal Hall,41 leading his section in from the right flank, dashed ahead and wiped out the pill-box single-handed. It was this action which allowed the platoon to get a footing on the ridge.
Hall’s section gained this footing at 9.46 a.m. when, from watching posts to the south, the West Australians could be seen clambering on to the top of the Pimple. Lieutenant Pearson, the artillery observer, and his team were forward with the leading infantry and reported that all the artillery rounds were falling in the correct areas. Four minutes after the first section was on the Pimple, Christian set up his headquarters there. Geyton’s platoon was now established along about 100 yards of Shaggy Ridge forward from the Pimple to another similar feature. A second platoon moved through to exploit beyond this second pimple. Three men charged a rock-made bunker but, despite heavy supporting fire, all three were wounded. Grenades failed to dislodge the Japanese and outflanking the position seemed impossible as the sides of the razor-back ridge guarded by the bunker were almost perpendicular. Christian therefore withdrew this platoon which dug in on a position just forward of the second pimple with the bunker immediately below them.
Just after 11 a.m., when Anderson’s company finished relieving Christian’s and began digging in with two platoons along the ridge and
one platoon in reserve just below the Pimple, a delayed tactical reconnaissance report by the Boomerangs indicated that large numbers of Japanese were streaming back towards the saddle. These were strafed by the Allied aircraft. At 11.40 a.m. the Japanese attacked the third pimple under the impression that it was occupied by the Australians. This pimple was beyond the bunker which had held up the advance. The fire from the company’s Brens prevented the Japanese from consolidating on the pimple and drove them back. A Japanese, who refused to surrender, covered the entrance to his pill-box with a groundsheet and for about two hours flicked away the grenades thrown at him before they could explode. Eventually he was blasted out when a grenade was tied to the end of a bamboo pole which was poked into the pit, the pin being pulled out by a length of string. More than 100 grenades were thrown during the day at the rock bunker in front of the second pimple.
With the two pimples in their hands the Australians could command a view of the north coast. Aircraft and artillery had played a notable part in helping to extend the area held on Shaggy Ridge. During the two-hour concentration the artillery fired 3,368 shells. “Guns were running hot and gunners received burns from either barrel or cradle,” wrote the diarist of the 2/4th Field Regiment. Over the battle area, when the fight was hottest,
flew a Piper Cub piloted by Flying Officer Staley and carrying General Vasey.
The forward troops of the 2/16th spent most of the night digging trenches around and from the second pimple so that they could approach the Japanese bunker from a more advantageous position. The Pioneers, protected from fire by the angle of the cliff, chiselled a track along the cliff face towards the bunker. Towards dawn the track was level with and just below the bunker. To deal with the bunker the engineers designed a special bomb which consisted of a grenade placed in a chemical and sealed in a field ration tin. At 8.30 a.m. on the 28th men on the newly-cut track and in the foremost positions pulled out the grenade pins and hurled the new bombs. The bunker was blasted away and inside its remains were found the bodies of a Japanese officer and a private who had held up the advance.
At the same time Lieutenant Scott’s platoon was sent down the rugged and precipitous east slope of Shaggy Ridge to attempt a wide encircling movement of the third pimple. At 10.50 a.m. he reported being at the base of the third pimple and a quarter of an hour later the artillery and mortars began firing smoke to cover his advance on to this pimple. Scott reported the “going too tough” straight up the side of the pimple, decided on a different direction, and began climbing up through a belt of timber. Six minutes after midday, light and medium machine-guns opened up on the left flank to distract the enemy’s attention and allow Scott to move in and attack from the right. Six minutes later those behind heard heavy firing from the direction of the third pimple and also saw figures climbing it.
At the foot of the objective Scott ordered his platoon sergeant, Longman,42 to take a small party of Owen gunners up the third pimple. Under heavy enemy machine-gun fire Longman and three men charged an enemy machine-gun post near the top. Two of his men were wounded but Longman and the other continued to advance on the enemy post and eventually silenced it with Owen-gun fire. To reach the enemy post they had to pull themselves up a steep slope with one hand and fire their Owens with the other. Still under heavy fire from other enemy posts the two men covered the evacuation of the two wounded and neutralised the fire of another enemy post 40 yards away which was opposing the advance of the rest of the platoon, led by the wounded Scott, up the cliff face. The courage and dash of the West Australians had enabled them to gain a very difficult objective and consolidate their positions under continuous machine-gun and sniping fire. Nine minutes after Longman led the first assault, Scott was in possession of the third pimple and was covering the advance of Lieutenant McCaughey’s43 platoon to the fourth and highest pimple (later named McCaughey’s Knoll), farther along the ridge. The two platoons then dug in on the newly-won ground.
Early in the afternoon a Japanese gun began shelling the forward positions on Shaggy Ridge and was promptly answered by the Australian artillery. Soon after the gun opened fire about 80 Japanese were seen on the feature about 600 yards forward of the newly-captured ground. The artillery immediately shelled them. At 2.22 p.m. the Japanese, somewhat chastened by this shell fire, counter-attacked the forward positions of the 2/16th but were driven back by accurate fire. When Vasey visited the battalion later in the day he learned that the 2/16th’s tally of Japanese dead was now 96.
The force which the 2/16th Battalion had attacked so successfully was a part of the II/78th Battalion whose task was to defend the Kankiryo Saddle–Shaggy Ridge-Faria Ridge area. As the result of the Australian assault the forward Japanese company was virtually annihilated. General Adachi and his staff officers, when questioned after the war, thought that the strength of the II/78th Battalion at this time was only about 400 but this figure seems too low.
An enemy gun was in action against the forward positions of the 2/16th on Shaggy Ridge at intervals during the period from the 29th to the 31st December, and on the 29th one of the leading platoon commanders, Lieutenant McCaughey, was killed by a tree burst which also wounded four others. Both the 2/16th Battalion on Shaggy Ridge and the 2/27th Battalion on the right were alert for any signs of Japanese withdrawal during these last days of December. At dawn on the 29th Lieutenant Lee44 and Sergeant Holland45) of the 2/16th crept forward a few yards and threw several grenades into a Japanese bunker.
Exchanges of artillery fire and small patrols in the forward area of the 21st Brigade continued until New Year’s Eve when, at midnight “all guns fired a salvo as New Year’s greeting”, according to the diary of the 2/4th Field Regiment.
It will be recalled that, while the 21st Brigade was dealing with Shaggy Ridge, the 25th Brigade’s task was to patrol deeply on the left flank. A company of the 2/31st Battalion, led by Lieutenant Oakhill,46 left the area east of the Evapia River towards dusk on 26th December on a six-day
patrol. The route lay along the main track to the Solu River, then through Ketoba to the Boku River crossing and thence along the track to Orgoruna. Travelling mainly by night the patrol crossed the Solu after dark on the 27th and reached Koropa by dawn on the 28th. After a small skirmish with an enemy patrol the company moved into Isariba at 9.40 a.m. On the morning of the 29th a patrol of three was fired on as it approached Orgoruna by an enemy force of about a platoon dug in on the far side of the village. Lieutenant Robertson,47 who was leading, killed a Japanese sentry. Oakhill then came up and engaged the Japanese. At 5 p.m. Boomerangs which had been scouting ahead of the company earlier in the day came over and strafed Orgoruna. Oakhill, having been told not to become heavily committed, withdrew and arrived back on the banks of the Evapia on the afternoon of 1st January.
There were other long patrols before the end of 1943. Major Laidlaw of the 2/2nd Commando Squadron accompanied Lieutenant Adams’ section on a long-range patrol on the western flank. The patrol returned six days later, on 28th December, having penetrated farthest east yet along the Uria-Rainbana and Uria–Kesa tracks. It found that all enemy defences in these areas were abandoned and it now seemed that the enemy might be pulling back into a semi-circle of defences round Madang and Bogadjim. Another important patrol in the last days of December was from the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and can be best described in the words of the battalion’s historian:
Battalion activities ended for the year with an important patrol up the Mene River Valley. ... Led by Captain Mclnnes,48 the patrol carried stocks of rations to a cache near a low ridge named Canning’s Saddle49 and, using that area as a patrol base, a smaller party set out to scale the slopes of Shaggy Ridge. The patrol was skilfully manoeuvred inside a wired position on the crest and withdrawn just as adeptly. The enemy never suspected the presence of a patrol inside his defences and he was later to pay dearly for his lack of vigilance.50
On New Year’s Eve occurred a loss which upset the fighting men of the 7th Division. One of the Boomerangs from No. 4 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer Staley, was lost on reconnaissance near the 5800 Feature. These manoeuvrable tree-skimming aircraft, piloted by their valiant crews who seemed to know the tangled country so well, had appeared indestructible. The crashed plane and the body of the pilot were found by a patrol from the 2/6th Commando Squadron on 2nd January.
The year ended with Vasey’s troops having gained a foothold on the dominating Shaggy Ridge leading to the main Japanese positions on Kan-kiryo Saddle. If the Americans landed at Saidor the Japanese in the Finisterres would undoubtedly be uneasy about their rear and might even have to detach troops from their mountain defences to take care of Saidor, thus facilitating an Australian advance across the Finisterres.
Vasey flew to Port Moresby on the 29th (Morshead had returned on the 28th and saw Blamey off next day). On the 30th Vasey conferred with Morshead and Milford and later he visited GHQ for a talk with MacArthur who had a soft spot for him. As a result of these conferences it was decided that the 18th and 15th Brigades would relieve the 21st and 25th. Brigadier Chilton received orders from Vasey that night at 7 p.m. that the 18th Brigade, using 36 aircraft a day, would relieve the 21st Brigade, starting from New Year’s Day. On the last day of the year, when Vasey returned to the valley accompanied by Lieut-General Lumsden,51 Mr Churchill’s representative at MacArthur’s headquarters, his two brigadiers – Dougherty and Eather – learnt that their brigades were to be relieved.
Before the Buna-Gona operations were over General Blamey had been impressed with the possibility of passing on to the British-Indian army in Burma the lessons that the Australians in New Guinea had so swiftly and successfully mastered. The Australians had established their tactical superiority over the Japanese in a long, exacting campaign fought under a variety of conditions; so far the army in Burma had not had such success.
Late in November 1942 General Wavell, then Commander-in-Chief in India, had sent a letter to Blamey by the hand of Major-General Dewing52 who was on his way to Australia as a United Kingdom liaison officer. In it Wavell congratulated Blamey on the Australian successes and asked for as much detailed information as possible about the operations and about Japanese tactics and methods. It appears that Blamey did not receive the letter for some weeks. On 23rd January 1943 he replied that he understood that full information about Japanese tactics was sent continuously to India and suggested that Wavell should send him up to 50 of his officers. “They could learn all we have to teach them in about a month or so which would spread the methods we have found so successful more quickly through the Army. I think, however, the fundamental thing in dealing with the Japanese is to develop the psychology of the troops on a completely aggressive basis.”
If this was to be done the sooner the better, in view of the distances involved; an alternative course, but one for Wavell rather than Blamey to suggest, was that a substantial group of Australian officers with New Guinea experience should go to India. It was 11th March, however, before Wavell wrote a reply to Blamey and 8th May before Blamey saw it. Wavell said that he was receiving valuable information from Australia; it would be difficult to spare so many officers; “we are getting a good deal of experience now ourselves in Arakan and north Burma, and with the
material you are sending us I think this should be sufficient”. He would like to visit Australia himself later.
Two Australian infantry majors – A. A. Buckley53 and W. N. Parry-Okeden – instructed in India from May to November 1943.
In June 1943 General Auchinleck had replaced Field Marshal Wavell as Commander-in-Chief in India, Wavell becoming Viceroy. On 24th August Blamey made to Auchinleck by telegram a similar proposal to that which Wavell had rejected: he would be happy to accept up to, say, 50 regimental officers for regimental attachment during actual operations at the earliest opportunity and also to lend Brigadier J. E. Lloyd.54 This produced a telegraphed reply on 1st September accepting both offers; and another telegram on the 16th suggesting that the Indian Army officers should go through the jungle warfare training centre at Canungra before attachment. The sending of other Australian officers to India in 1944 will be mentioned later.
On the 22nd General Vasey informed all his units that officers from the British Army in India and the Indian Army would be attached to the division for training in jungle warfare. Nineteen officers from India joined the 7th Division.