THIS VOLUME chronicles the operations of the Australian Army in New Guinea from April 1943 until mid-1944. Mainly it is the story of four Australian divisions – two AIF and two militia. It tells how the army, after emerging from the holding war towards the end of the Salamaua campaign, surged forward in a great offensive which cleared the XVIII Japanese Army from Lae, the Huon Peninsula, the Ramu Valley and in fact most of Australian New Guinea. The theme is thus one of triumph, though still against all sorts of odds. The British-Indian operations in Burma and the American operations in the Pacific are only briefly recorded, except where American units in New Guinea are serving under Australian command.
I have tried, as have writers of other volumes in this series, to tell the story of the front line – if operations along a gloomy jungle track, or on a rain-drenched razor-back, or in the stifling kunai can be so described. Inevitably it is a story of individuals and small sub-units on patrol, in ambush, in attack or defence; this was not a war of massed battalions but of the forward scout, the section, the platoon and the company. Thus the supporting arms – artillery, signals, engineers, supply and the like – probably receive less attention than is their due except when, as sometimes happened, they shared the fierce excitement of battle with their infantry comrades. Similarly the vital and increasingly powerful support by the Allied air and naval forces is mentioned only briefly as part of the background to the army’s operations.
The detail in this volume has been drawn principally from the war diaries of units in action – thirty-six infantry battalions (including the Papuan Infantry Battalion), five Independent Companies, plus the supporting arms such as artillery regiments and engineer companies; together with war diaries and reports of eleven brigades, five divisions, two corps and other organisations such as Angau, New Guinea Force, Land Headquarters and General Headquarters. The scale of these basic sources varies from the one which describes a minor patrol action in several pages to that which dismisses a splendid attack or a resolute defence with “had a bit of a bash today”. Whenever there has been controversy about what actually happened at a given place and time I have accepted the version of the man on the spot – often written by a private, NCO or junior officer on a scrap of paper. I have benefited from interviews recorded by Mr Gavin Long in New Guinea and elsewhere in 1943-44, from my own interviews with commanders after the war, and from letters, diaries and other personal papers gladly lent by many. For the account of strategic planning I have had access to Australian War Cabinet papers, to Field Marshal Blamey’s files, and to a wealth of reports and memoirs by American and British leaders. Several Allied histories (national and unit) have been studied. Unfortunately, memoirs by Australian leaders in this
period are non-existent, and published Australian unit histories are disappointingly few.
Where a man is first mentioned in the text a footnote gives brief biographical details, but people who have appeared in earlier Pacific volumes of the series are not footnoted again in this one.
In whole or in part the draft of this book has been read by more than 200 participants. Generally, except where operations tailed off towards the end, I have aimed at giving the opportunity to comment to at least two key figures from virtually every front-line unit and to commanders and others who were with the higher formations. They have responded most generously. While these readers have seldom been able successfully to challenge the facts as set forth, the drafts have stimulated memories: old forgotten far-off things have come crowding back in the form of a name or two, a little added colour, an interpretation of a moment in time.
As a member of that green-clad fighting machine – the Australian Army of 1943–44 – I tramped or flew over much of the country described; I fought over some of it as a platoon commander in the 2/2nd Independent Company on the Bena Plateau, in the Ramu Valley and in the aptly named Finisterre Mountains; and I was borne on a stretcher for several days over some of the worst of it by our devoted and compassionate New Guinea carriers.
Any soldier who fought the Japanese cannot but have respect for them as fighters, even though, with the tide turning against them, they did not fight it out to the last, as on the Papuan beaches. It has been difficult to present a satisfying picture of the enemy side because the XVIII Army later destroyed many records, but I have tried to piece the story together, mainly from the multitude of documents captured by the Australians. The individual Japanese soldier was an inveterate diarist, he carried his unit badge in the front line, and his commanders carried operation orders and future plans in the forward area. The story derived from these basic documents has been amplified with the help of post-war Japanese reports and interviews, and books written by Japanese war-time leaders.
The task of writing this book has been with me for more than a decade. I have written it, appropriately enough, in both Australia and Asia – in Canberra, in Colombo and on a tea estate in Ceylon’s high country; the finishing touches were put to it in New Delhi and at a Himalayan hill station. At many midnights over the years I had perforce to leave Private Smith and his patrol in danger along the jungle track – and yet as often as not I went on with him through the night. To the men who fought, this book is dedicated.
Separated as I was so often from War History headquarters, I had to rely on several people to help me. I am grateful to Dr C. E. W. Bean who pioneered the master-diary method of arranging extracts from the sources. I would not have been able to write this volume without the wise guidance, serene encouragement and gentle nudging of Gavin Long who has been my guru over all these years, and who has thought nothing of helping me out by drafting occasional pieces himself I have been
most fortunate in having efficient and dedicated literary assistants – Jim Brill till the end of 1955 and Mary Gilchrist thereafter – who have cheerfully and without complaint borne many heavy burdens. I am indebted to Mr Hugh Groser’s experience and skill in military map-making, to Miss Elaine Oates who helped him; and to my brother Barrie who read the final drafts.