Chapter 6: The Offensive Opens
ONE more action was fought by the 7th Brigade in the central sector before it was transferred to the south in consequence of the decision to open a full-scale offensive against the main Japanese force. It will be recalled that the 25th Battalion relieved the 9th at Arty Hill at the end of the third week of December, and that, from the 22nd onwards, the incoming battalion patrolled forward against the new Japanese position on Pearl Ridge, where the enemy force was estimated to number from 80 to 90. An attack was planned for the morning of the 30th, and all four rifle companies were to be used: Lieutenant Shaw’s1 was to advance from Arty Hill and take the north-eastern spur of Pearl, Captain Just’s2 to pass through and take the eastern part of the main ridge, Captain Bruce’s3 to cut the enemy’s track to the west and Captain Gabel’s4 to advance from Werda’s Knoll to Baker’s Brow.
Early in the morning of 30th December aircraft attacked the Japanese positions for about forty minutes, and at 8 a.m. the infantry advanced behind artillery and medium-machine-gun fire. On the right Shaw’s company ‘ moved along a razor-back only twelve feet in width, with precipitous sides, and broken at a point about 300 yards from the start-line by a bomb crater twelve feet across and ten feet deep. The Japanese were strongly established on the far side of this crater and swept it with fire. Corporal Carter5 and his section tried to rush across but he was killed, others were wounded, and the attack was halted. The Japanese position was bombarded. Efforts were made to outflank it by sending one platoon to the right and another to the left
but these failed because of the heavy fire and the difficulty of moving along the sides of the razor-back ridge, down which the Japanese rolled grenades. After three men had been killed and six wounded the company was ordered, at 4 p.m., to dig in and reorganise.
Bruce’s company made slow progress in thick bush, including bamboo, but reached its objective across the Japanese track at 2.45, having killed six Japanese and lost only one man wounded.
After the setback on the right Lieut-Colonel McKinna wisely changed the plan, ordered Just’s company to dig in for the present, and approach Pearl Ridge next day by a long and difficult climb along Pear Hill instead of along the narrow spur where the attack had failed.
During the night the leading companies beat off strong counter-attacks. Next day the renewed attack succeeded. Just’s company reached the objective by 4.15 p.m. without loss, Gabel’s took Baker’s Brow at 4.25 p.m., after having killed 13 Japanese, 10 of them having fallen to Lieutenant Chesterton’s6 platoon. It had been a hard fight; 10 Australians had been killed, and 25 wounded; 34 Japanese dead were found and others lay unrecovered on the steep sides of the razor-back; one man was taken prisoner.7 From the newly-captured heights the Australians could see the sea on both sides of the 30-mile-wide island.
We know now that the attack on Pearl Ridge was launched not against a Japanese company, as was then believed, but against a battalion of fresh troops strongly dug in. Its capture by an Australian battalion whose experience of battle was limited to a brief encounter more than two years before was thus one of the outstanding feats of arms in this campaign and a striking demonstration of the effectiveness of the Australian force’s training and tactics. After Arty Hill the survivors of the two companies of the 81st Japanese Regiment had been withdrawn to Pearl Ridge, where they were reinforced by a fit and keen battalion some 550 strong from the 38th Brigade, whose commander, Major-General Kesao Kijima, took charge of the whole area. Pearl Ridge was converted into a fortress and from 4 to 6 guns and 20 to 30 mortars were in support. The air strikes preceding the attack caused little damage and few casualties, but were considered nerve-racking. The loss of the ridge after “three days of desperate fighting” was attributed to lack of heavy weapons; Japanese leaders considered that their counter-attacks could not have failed if there had been stronger support by artillery and mortars. The loss of the ridge was regarded as a blow to the prestige of the 38th Brigade, but the courageous performance of its troops was a source of consolation.
Soon after the capture of Pearl Ridge the 11th Brigade took over the central as well as the northern sector, in accordance with General Savige’s instructions. These provided that Brigadier Stevenson should not advance beyond Pearl Ridge, where it was taking about 300 native carriers and
five jeeps to supply a battalion group, and that there should be deep patrolling with the object of gaining topographical and tactical information, preventing transfer of reinforcements to the south, and inflicting casualties. Each battalion of the brigade in turn did a tour of duty in the sector.8
When the 11th Brigade took over Stevenson decided that effort was being wasted moving supplies forward and had a jeep track built from Barges’ Hill to Pearl Ridge. Four jeeps were taken to pieces, carried up the escarpment and assembled on the new track above it. To accelerate the improvement of the road, men of the 16th Field Company under Captain C. C. Wolfe hauled a bulldozer up the 5-in-4 grade of Barges’ Hill. The route was reduced to “the least practicable number of straight legs”, cleared of undergrowth and roughly levelled with mattocks and shovels. A cable 3,000 feet long was hauled up the hill by 30 infantrymen and 150 natives pulling at 8-foot intervals, and anchored to several trees at Moreton’s Rest, 450 feet below the top. On this cable the dozer winched itself up the incline in 60 foot stages. All this took eight days. Beyond Moreton’s Rest there were enough strong trees to enable the dozer to climb up along a 300-foot length of cable.
During this phase patrols, generally guided by native police, were sent out for from one day to six days to probe forward through the bush. The 11th Battery relieved the 10th and it replaced its short 25-pounders with long 25-pounders, with their greater range, in order to support these deep patrols more effectively; from posts on Pearl Ridge and Keenan’s Ridge observers directed the bombardment of the Japanese positions on the slopes beyond. The firing of the guns, far below at the foot of the Laruma escarpment, could not be heard at Pearl Ridge and the only warning that the Japanese had was the brief whistle of the approaching shells.
Partly as a result of the skilful guidance of the native police the patrols killed many Japanese and suffered relatively small losses. The 26th Battalion, the first to do a tour of duty here, suffered its first death in action on 7th January when a patrol led by Lieutenant Davis9 met an enemy patrol. Private Smith10 died of wounds and three corporals were wounded. The hill where the clash occurred was then named Smith’s Hill.
Patrolling was carried out persistently and with great skill. While the 55th/53rd Battalion was in the forward position a fighting patrol on 8th February attacked the enemy on Smith’s Hill. It was led by Lieutenant Ryan11 with Lieutenant Ford12 as artillery observer, and included twelve others.
The patrol found signal wires running along the track and began to cut them at intervals. Suddenly the forward scout, Private Elliott,13 was hit by rifle fire and, as the patrol went to ground, a machine-gun opened up. In the course of the subsequent fight against from fifteen to twenty Japanese, Ryan was seriously wounded while moving forward with Private Paice14 to recover Elliott. Ryan went on firing; Paice shot two Japanese and continued trying to save Elliott but found that he had been hit again, mortally. Paice then brought Ryan back to the patrol. Ford now rushed forward, retrieved a telephone which had been left when the enemy began shooting, and, from a position close to where contact had been made, directed concentrations from his battery on to the Japanese only 50 yards in front of him; this enabled the patrol to withdraw. Ryan walked back with the patrol but later died of his wounds.
The nature of the deep patrols may be illustrated by drawing on the report of the one which killed the largest number of Japanese. Lieutenant Goodwin15 and ten infantrymen of the 55th/53rd, with an artillery observer (again Lieutenant Ford) and his team, a native police boy and two native scouts, set out on 2nd March to gain topographical information and information about the enemy, and find suitable supply-dropping points. They were out for five days. On the first morning they saw signs of a Japanese patrol of three some 45 minutes ahead of them and traced their movements. The Australians moved 5,400 yards that day. Next morning near the Numa Numa trail one of the natives reported that Japanese were near by. Goodwin detailed three men to block the track and led three others in from the side to deal with the enemy. They crept stealthily forward and found six Japanese in a lean-to. Goodwin gave each man a target and all six of the enemy were killed. While Goodwin was examining the bodies there was a burst of fire from a ridge overlooking them. The Australians withdrew to dead ground, circled the enemy and marched on into his territory, the Japanese fire continuing for 15 minutes after they had gone. They travelled 7,600 yards that day. The 4th was spent reconnoitring the area they had then reached. Next day they had moved some 5,000 yards on the return journey when scouts reported Japanese round the junction of their native pad and a creek that lay ahead. Goodwin moved the patrol to a ridge overlooking the Japanese and sent three men to cover the track to the west. Goodwin’s report says:
Noise of flowing river covered sounds which might have been made by movement of patrol. The patrol commander then personally positioned each man of the patrol and indicated his target. Thus the eleven members of the patrol made sure of eleven kills on fire being opened after given signal. Approximately seven Japanese rushed from a near-by lean-to. These were immediately engaged by fire from the patrol. The enemy killed by fire totalled 15. In addition fifteen grenades were thrown into area.
The native police boy claimed 18 killed but patrol commander cannot confirm additional three. From a position overlooking the killing ground LMG and rifle fire was almost immediately opened on patrol. The LMG fire ceased when two grenades were thrown and Owen gun fire was directed at source of enemy fire but results were unobserved. Enemy rifle fire continued and the patrol withdrew. On considering the distance still to be covered back to battalion, the patrol commander decided that the risk of casualties which might be sustained in pressing an attack to search bodies was not justified.
It was then nearly 5 p.m. The patrol moved 700 yards and bivouacked for the night. Next day – the 6th – six hours of marching brought them back to their starting point.
While in this area the 55th/53rd made 36 deep patrols. On one led by Sergeant Greenshields,16 and lasting four days, 20 Japanese were killed. Lieutenants Goodwin, Campbell17 and Kayrooz18 each led out four patrols; Goodwin’s killed a total of 26 out of the 107 Japanese killed by all patrols of this battalion.
The next battalion to take over the forward positions was the 31st/51st (Lieut-Colonel Kelly) whose strenuous operations in the northern sector in January and February will be described later. Perhaps the outstanding patrol leader in the 31st/51st was Lieutenant Reiter,19 who led out three patrols which killed 10 out of the 78 Japanese killed by this battalion’s forays. One of these patrols was named by the battalion “the raid on Reiter’s Ridge”. Reiter and fifteen men were given the task of harassing the Japanese occupying a prominent ridge just east of Sisivie and discovering their strength. They departed from Keenan’s Ridge at 5.30 p.m. on 27th March, bivouacked at a former artillery observation post and moved on at 3 a.m. next morning for a dawn attack. At 6 a.m.
the patrol moved in, and throwing grenades and firing LMG occupied a small knoll (its report stated). Two Japanese were killed and one pill-box containing LMG destroyed. Patrol raced down narrow neck to a wide clearing in which several huts were sighted. Phosphorus and HE grenades were thrown. In a matter of seconds four more Japanese killed (two in slit trenches, one as he ran and another while abluting). Two were wounded by phosphorus grenades. Three huts were blazing and one (considered to be an ammunition dump) blew up. Enemy opened up with one LMG and fifteen rifles and patrol pulled out with one man wounded.
Instead of hastening them away Reiter assembled his men near by in concealment and watched the enemy. At length Japanese began to move about again, and soon they were washing clothes, chopping wood and performing other tasks. There were from 25 to 30 enemy in the post. The Australians watched throughout the morning and at 12.30 p.m. opened fire with all their weapons. Two Japanese were killed and four more huts set on fire. The enemy fired back, and at 1.15 Reiter withdrew his men and returned to Keenan’s Ridge leaving an ambush on the enemy’s
track. The ambush party returned later and reported that it had seen no movement.
On the 29th, the day after Reiter’s return, a platoon of the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion under Lieutenant Martin20 set out for Buritsiotorara along the Wakunai River. There they found three huts and a large garden with seven Japanese moving about unarmed. Throwing grenades and firing from the hip the native soldiers attacked and killed all seven. Three more who emerged from a hut were chased and killed. Three of the dead men were found to be lieutenants; three machine-guns were captured. Next day at Aviang, 1,200 yards away, seven more Japanese were seen, of whom three including another lieutenant were killed and the others fled.
Other outstanding patrol leaders were: in the 26th Battalion, Lieutenants Chambers,21 Christie22 and Wylie23; in the 31st/51st, Lieutenants Patterson24 and Evans.25 In the brigade’s fourteen weeks in this sector 236 Japanese were killed, 15 probably killed, and four prisoners taken, yet the Australians lost only four dead and 19 wounded – evidence of their high standard of training and the quality of the junior leaders.
It soon became evident that the constant harassment of the Japanese, combined with shortage of food, was depressing their spirits. On 4th March a Japanese medical officer who walked into the forward Australian positions and gave himself up said that many of his comrades were in poor condition, possessed surrender pamphlets prepared by the Far Eastern Liaison Office,26 and would surrender if they could be assured of a safe journey to the Australian lines. Thereupon a FELO propaganda unit was brought to Pearl Ridge, and, for several days from 7th March onwards, broadcast to the Japanese that their plight was hopeless and how and where to surrender. Pamphlets were dropped from the air into the Japanese area.
No Japanese surrendered as a result of the propaganda. This may be attributed to the fact that a stricter watch was kept on would-be deserters, and that, soon after the broadcasts began, patrols reported that Smith’s Hill garrison included some well-equipped Japanese of big build and in good physical condition, which was thought to indicate that the position had been reinforced or that the former garrison had been relieved.
In fact the strength of the 38th Japanese Brigade and attached troops in the Numa Numa sector at this stage was about 1,600. The Japanese leaders had reached the conclusion that the Australians had completed preparations for a large-scale
attack from Pearl Ridge, probably by three battalions – one along the Numa Numa trail, one along the Wakunai River trail and the third through Ibu. Finally, they considered, a seaborne force would land and advance on Numa Numa from the north. Thus the Australian force at Pearl Ridge, never more than one battalion, succeeded in its task of keeping the enemy on tenterhooks.
In the northern sector a new phase had opened when, on 31st December, Savige ordered Stevenson “to conduct operations with the object of destroying the enemy garrisons and establishing control along the north-west coast of Bougainville up to the Soraken Harbour”. In consequence the 31st/51st Battalion, which already had a company patrolling forward from Kuraio Mission, had been concentrated at Sipaai on 7th January.27
Stevenson directed Kelly that, because engineer supplies and native carriers were limited, he should advance by making sweeping inland patrols aimed at driving the enemy down to the coastal belt where they could be annihilated, whereas if they retreated into the mountains it might take months to “winkle” them out. Reports from native scouts suggested that the enemy was reinforcing his positions forward of the Genga River and would fight on that line. While the main body of the 31st/51st advanced astride the coastal track, a long-range patrol was sent inland by way of Totokei toward Lalum, known to be the main village between the Genga River – the probable Japanese defensive line – and Soraken, the Japanese base. On 16th January Captain Titley’s28 company reached Rukussia without incident. This company then moved north along the coastal flank and the first clash with a strong group of Japanese came on 17th January. In sharp fights on the 17th and 18th eight Japanese were killed and three wounded, for a loss of two men wounded. The enemy opened fire with artillery for the first time in this sector, but 14 out of 49 rounds fired failed to explode.
On the 19th the flanking force – a platoon led by Lieutenant A. Rooda-koff with Captain Tame29 of Angau, 12 police boys and 50 porters – advancing towards Lalum through the foothills met from 30 to 40 of the enemy at Kunamatoro. Lance-Sergeant Davies-Griffiths30 led an attack on the village and in ten minutes the Japanese were overwhelmed. Fourteen Japanese were killed; one Australian was killed and Lieutenant Roodakoff was seriously wounded;31 after the fight the gallant Davies-Griffiths was missing. At dusk the Australians withdrew carrying the dead and wounded. It was evident that the advancing battalion had encountered the enemy’s line of resistance, and that he intended to fight for the Genga.
On the 19th in an effort to outflank the opposition on the coastal track a patrol was sent inland and then north. It came upon two mountain guns guarded by a sentry, who was taken by surprise and killed, and it captured documents showing the organisation of the 10th Company of the 81st Regiment which was evidently opposing the advance.
On the left by 21st January Titley’s company was some 800 yards from the Genga River. There the track entered an open garden about 100 yards wide, beyond which on the northern side curved the wooded Tsimba Ridge, the whole forming an amphitheatre. The Japanese dug in on the ridge had an excellent field of fire into the garden area. West from the amphitheatre the high ground stretched some 500 yards to the south bank of the Genga, thus forming an obstacle across and well to the east of the line of advance.
That day efforts were made to outflank this position. The advance was halted by machine-gun and rifle fire, but not before the “Pimple” on Tsimba Ridge had been taken and a machine-gun captured with no loss to the Australians. On the following days patrols pressed forward and it was discovered that there were trenches and pill-boxes along Tsimba Ridge for about 150 yards. On the 23rd two guns of the 2nd Mountain Battery shelled the ridge from 3,100 yards. Next day an attack was launched on the right, but halted by concentrated Japanese fire. On the 25th a wide outflanking movement was begun with the object of attacking the position from the north. One platoon crossed the Genga, some 600 yards inland from Tsimba and was joined next day by the remainder of its company (Captain Shilton32). For the next six days
the Japanese strongly attacked this bridgehead, but were repulsed with sharp losses. However, the securing of this bridgehead did not loosen the Japanese grip on Tsimba Ridge itself and a set-piece attack, supported by the whole of the 2nd Mountain Battery and a platoon of heavy mortars, was planned for 6th February.
One of the hazards of crossing the Genga (and, later, the Gillman) was the presence of crocodiles. At one crossing Captain Wolfe of the engineers crawled to a tree growing on the bank, placed gelignite round it and felled it across the stream, enabling the men to cross without wading through the water.
Late in January, Brigadier Stevenson suggested that tanks be used in support of the battalion, but General Savige told him that the armour was to be kept to achieve surprise in the southern sector in a later phase.
On 29th January the Japanese launched a particularly fierce attack on the bridgehead across the Genga, broke through one part of the perimeter, and the fighting was so close that men were cut with swords. Shilton organised a counter-attack. From exposed positions Lieutenant Forbes33 of the mountain battery directed effective fire which helped greatly to break the attack. Next day small parties of the enemy attacked the bridgehead again. An outstanding scout, Private Miles,34 led out four three-man patrols against these parties and he and his men killed seven and wounded five.
From 8.20 until 9 a.m. on 6th February more than 500 shells and mortar bombs were fired on to Tsimba Ridge. One gun had been brought forward to within 200 yards of the Japanese position. At 9 a.m. two platoons of Captain Harris’35 company moved to a forming-up place southeast of the amphitheatre and then advanced north-west down a 50-foot incline and up a rise beyond – a distance of about 200 yards. No. 10 Platoon attacked the centre of the ridge from the east and gained its objective by 9.25, killing 5 Japanese and losing 3 killed and 7 wounded. Private Jorgensen36 courageously rushed a Japanese weapon-pit, killed the two occupants and captured a machine-gun. No. 11 Platoon continued to move north to circle and attack the western part of the ridge from the rear. At 9.30 12 Platoon attacked from the garden area but, having lost four men, were halted. Corporal Miller37 took command of two sections which had lost contact with the remainder of the platoon and led them forward to the objective under fire which wounded six men. By 11.30 11 Platoon had reached high ground on the western end of the north side of the stronghold but could not advance to the enemy posts on the south side. The surviving Japanese were now surrounded, but the attack had
cost the Australians 9 men killed and 20 wounded. Such losses were not surprising. There was a continuous communication trench along each crest of the ridge and forward of the trenches were weapon-pits with log roofs commanding a clear field of fire across an area offering practically no cover except at the inner edge of the beach where a line of lofty casuarinas grew.
Next day the enemy counter-attacked and was repulsed, yet he clung doggedly to his remaining pocket on the western tip of the ridge. On the morning of 9th February three aircraft bombed the Japanese positions. Only two of their six bombs exploded, but, after a mortar bombardment, Harris’ company advanced and occupied the remainder of the ridge without opposition. It was estimated that 66 Japanese had been killed in the defence of the Tsimba area. Four field and 3 anti-tank guns, 9 machine-guns and 86 rifles were captured. By 10th February the bush south of the Genga River was cleared of the enemy, and patrols had cleared the north bank of the river, after one clash in which 3 Japanese were killed, 3 Australians wounded, and a Japanese 37-mm gun captured. On the 11th the Japanese were forced out of a position astride the track some 150 yards beyond the river. The enemy’s artillery was now frequently harassing the advancing battalion.38 This day shells killed two men, including Lieutenant Bak.39
On 4th February Captain Downs’40 company had departed to clear any enemy from the Kunamatoro area and then swing in to link with the drive up the coast towards Soraken. This company dug in on a ridge overlooking Soraken Plantation and Taiof Island and sent out small patrols. On 7th February a party of Japanese attacked a forward outpost wounding 3 Australians; 4 Japanese were killed and the others withdrew. On 9th February the company advanced and occupied a position 250 yards from the enemy. A party of 20 Japanese were attacked and 2 were killed. Another attack was launched on the 12th, but strongly entrenched automatics plus sniping halted the Australians, who lost 2 killed and 9 wounded. On 19th February 25-pounders, recently arrived at Puto, the
barge-unloading point through which the force was supplied, and the mountain guns shelled the ridge for 40 minutes. Then the whole company advanced with supporting fire from heavy mortars and machine-guns. One of the men who took part said afterwards:
The advance was up two spurs: two platoons up the left and one up the right. The Nips were well dug in and the majority were firing American Springfield rifles. We cleared the ridge with grenades and rifles and pushed on to find three pits and a hut in the rear. Two Japs killed by the grenades remained in the pits. The remainder had fled though one was shot careering down the slope. The company pushed on down the ridge which was so narrow that the troops had to move down in single file. Just before dusk one of our men was killed, and during the night the Nips circled about calling out for their mates – the two killed by grenades. The 25-pounders had given the ridge such a pounding that most of the surface soil was loose. ... During the whole of the attack at Downs’ Ridge a big feature was the struggle to get the wounded back. They had to be evacuated over six miles of ridge to Puto. It was a three to four-hour carry and most of it was done at night.
Downs’ company pressed on in close touch with the Japanese that day and during the 20th, 21st and 22nd. In the attack and in general skirmishing on the following days the company lost 5 killed and 8 wounded; 12 Japanese dead were counted.
Meanwhile on the coast a series of encircling moves was made cutting the enemy’s track behind him. Finally two platoons which had made a wide flanking move reached the coast north of the Gillman River and on the night 20th–21st February the enemy force south of that river withdrew. On the 22nd the 31st/51st (except Downs’ company which remained until the 25th) was relieved by the 26th Battalion.41
Papers captured during the operation suggested that the Japanese force on the Genga consisted of about 140 men in December and was reinforced to 390 in January. After the war, however, Japanese officers said that about 900 men, under Lieut-Colonel Shinzo Nakamura, “a master of jungle warfare”, were concentrated in the Genga River area to halt any advance up the coast. It was decided not to attempt to deny to the Australians the country south of the Genga area but to stagger them by a sudden show of power on the line of the river. Artillery was brought forward, and a strong position was constructed on Tsimba Ridge, with a flanking force in the Kunamatoro area. The Japanese estimated the Australian force fairly accurately at one battalion with from six to eight guns. The long action was fought with determination on both sides. A Japanese officer stated afterwards that he did not think it possible that the Australians could have received such punishment and still have persisted in their attacks. Nakamura’s eventual withdrawal was not considered a defeat but “a necessary tactical move caused by the infiltration of a small enemy group north of the Genga about three-quarters of a mile inland” (presumably Downs’ company).
The Corps staff asked Stevenson in the third week of February to capture a Japanese prisoner from one of the islands off the north-west coast with the object of obtaining information. Petats Island, where there were only one or two Japanese, was chosen, and on the night of the 20th–21st February an Angau patrol under Captain Cambridge,42 accompanied
by Major Sampson43 of the 31st/51st, was landed on the island from a barge and captured a lone sentry. This raid caused the natives on the island to fear reprisals and accordingly the island was again visited on the night of the 24th, four Japanese who had just arrived from Buka were killed, and the 376 native inhabitants removed.
It will be recalled that a party of veteran scouts led by Lieutenant Bridge, RANVR, had been ordered to operate behind the enemy’s lines in northern Bougainville. Bridge, with Sergeant McPhee and twelve native soldiers led by Sergeant-Major Yauwiga, left Torokina on 24th November,
climbed into the mountains, and established a base camp at Aita whence they renewed acquaintance with old friends among the natives. On 12th December they were joined by Flying Officer Sandford’s party, which included, as mentioned earlier, Sergeants Wigley and McEvoy of the AIF. From the base Sandford sent his men towards Numa Numa, but his operations were interrupted when an aircraft crashed near Aita on 20th December and he had to return to Torokina with the sole survivor. Later in December Bridge’s party made two raids on a Japanese camp at Tanimbaubau and rescued 60 Indian prisoners of war, from whom they learnt that the Japanese had shot more than 40 Indian prisoners as a warning after a few (as mentioned earlier) had escaped. As a result
of information wirelessed by Bridge’s party New Zealand aircraft attacked the camp and killed some 60 Japanese. “Another success at this time,” says a report, “was the removal of seven native Kempei (military police agents) who had long worked with the Japanese. Sergeant-Major Yauwiga44 circulated the rumour that these had been ‘double-crossing’ the enemy by supplying him with information. On hearing this the Japanese had their agents executed.”
A military force usually advances along an “axis”, an imaginary line pointing the direction in which the main body is moving, and there are a centre and two flanks, although mountains, the sea or some other obstacle may press the flanks close to the main body. It is difficult, however, to describe the coming operations in the southern sector of Bougainville in these terms. The ultimate objective lay to the south in the Buin area, and to that extent the axis of the advancing force, making its successive landings along the coast, was a north-south line. But enemy forces were concentrated along the east-west rivers and tracks and thus the force, as it moved south, faced east – like a crab. Indeed the hand-painted cover of the musty typewritten “History of Operations-29th Australian Infantry Brigade-29th November 1944-23rd January 1945” shows a large red crab superimposed on a map of the southern end of Empress Augusta Bay; his body rests on the coast, his large left claw grasps the Jaba River, his right reaches for the Puriata, one antenna extends towards Sisiruai on the Tavera, the other towards Makotowa on the Hupai.
This diagram shows the position reached by the brigade in late January. But when, on 23rd December, its role was changed from reconnaissance to attack, the crab lay along the beach north of the Jaba mouth to the mouth of the Tavera, seized on 21st December. Its left claw grasped the Kupon Road at a point about three miles from the Jaba mouth, its right enclosed the Tuju–Tavera area.
The two remaining battalions of the 29th Brigade were now moved south from Torokina, the 47th being made responsible for the country north of the Jaba, the 42nd for the rear area back to the Chop Chop trail. From 22nd December the whole of the 2nd Field Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Parker45) was under the command of the 29th Brigade.
On Christmas Day a patrol of the New Guinea Battalion reached the mouth of the Adele River and formed a base there – “Advanced Base A”. Next day a further base was established at the mouth of the Hupai, but it was strongly attacked and by the 27th the New Guinea platoon there was withdrawn north of the Tavera. However, the native troops and police were daily proving their value. In December Captain Johnson’s company killed 41 Japanese and brought in 8 prisoners. Strong patrols moved stealthily deep into enemy-held country and individual guides were attached to Australian patrols. When natives were employed the chance
of being surprised by the enemy was small. Until early in February only two native soldiers of the New Guinea Battalion were killed on Bougainville – one accidentally by an aircraft of the RNZAF whose pilot fired on men seen on a beach, and another when he met a patrol of the 2/8th Commando.46 None were killed in a clash with the enemy, though they had killed scores of Japanese. Long before a Japanese patrol or ambush knew they were near, the silently-moving natives would be aware of their presence and fade into the bush. It seemed to their European leaders that they possessed another sense denied to Europeans or Japanese. The natives were in good heart. They looked up to Europeans but despised the Japanese, whom they regarded as belonging to an inferior race, a result partly of the Japanese neglect of cleanliness, and partly of their custom of behaving towards the natives as though they were equals. The New Guinea natives could not conceive of people so different being their equals, and, as they did not behave as superiors should, decided that they must be of some lesser breed.
On 28th December Brigadier Monaghan gave orders for a deep advance along the coast; the 15th Battalion was to seize the south bank of the Tavera River with one company, and, if opportunity occurred, to seize the log crossing – Peeler’s Post – on the Mendai Track north of the river. Next day a company of the 15th was landed south of the Tavera in spite of heavy seas; Peeler’s Post was occupied, and an advance was made by Captain McDonald’s47 company of the 47th Battalion up the Jaba River. Its task was to establish a firm base on the track about half way to the junction with the Pagana and destroy an enemy pocket of resistance which had been holding up the advance along the Jaba. A platoon of the 1st New Guinea Battalion was placed under command with the special task of cutting the signal line from the Japanese post to Japanese headquarters.
A platoon of McDonald’s company made several attacks on the enemy post on the 29th but came under heavy fire the origin of which was hard to find because of the dense undergrowth. Meanwhile company headquarters and one platoon had established an ambush east of the Japanese position and the attacking platoon withdrew to a position near by. The company repulsed attacks on the night of the 29th–30th and on the morning of the 30th the Japanese opened fire with a light gun and McDonald and two others were wounded.48
The company began to withdraw but encountered an enemy party astride the track. After a sharp fight the Australians dispersed the enemy and reached the battalion perimeter. Meanwhile the company’s second-in-command, Captain Wade-Ferrell,49 had led out a small party to carry
rations and water to the forward troops. They encountered Japanese whom they dispersed after a short engagement. This party then also regained the perimeter.
On the extreme southern wing Lieutenant Rutherford’s50 platoon of the 15th Battalion which, on the 30th, was forming a base south of the Adele from which patrols of New Guinea troops were to probe south and east, was sharply attacked and its communications cut.
A carrier pigeon arrived at battalion headquarters from Rutherford with a message asking for assistance.51 Lieutenant Moore52 with a platoon was sent to bring in the isolated men. At 7.20 p.m. Moore was within 30 yards or so of the Japanese who were encircling the isolated Australians and “endeavoured by use of vernacular and slang to persuade 17 Platoon to permit them to enter perimeter”, but “every attempt greeted by grenades, Owen and Bren fire”. At length the relieving platoon was ordered to return to its company’s perimeter, where it arrived some two hours later. The Japanese departed, however, and next morning Rutherford’s platoon was withdrawn by barge. Three of its members had been wounded, including Rutherford, but the bodies of 17 Japanese were later found in the neighbourhood.
On 31st December the 42nd Battalion began relieving the 47th to allow it to move down the coast to support the 15th. Meanwhile the 2/8th Commando was arriving in the Jaba area to take over the protection of Monaghan’s inland flank.
Each day there were sharp clashes between Australian and Japanese patrols on the tracks south of the Jaba, but the Australians were steadily gaining control of a larger area.53 On 4th January General Bridgeford instructed Brigadier Monaghan to capture Mawaraka, establish a firm base there and clear the southern hook of Empress Augusta Bay. The 61st Battalion of Field’s brigade was to take responsibility for the area between the Tagessi and the Jaba and thus the whole of the 29th would be free to operate south of the Jaba. Monaghan’s brigade was re-deployed and by 8th January the 47th was forward with the 15th in support, the 42nd was
well south of the Jaba, the 2/8th Commando round the Jaba mouth, the 61st north of it.
Meanwhile, on 5th January, an ambush had been set by a platoon of the 47th at Oxley Ambush54 on the Jaba–Tuju track and other moves were ordered with the object of clearing the Japanese track junctions south of the Jaba. Next day Monaghan recorded “complete success”. A company of the 47th occupied “Base A” at the mouth of the Adele (where it counted the bodies of 27 Japanese killed in the earlier fighting), and the mouth of the Tavera was strongly occupied. On 8th and 9th January, as the 15th advanced along the Mendai Track, a road was cut with a bulldozer from the Tavera toward the Adele “in record time” to support the 47th moving south.
Lieutenant Light’s55 New Guinea platoon was ordered to cross the Adele on the 9th and Captain Hibberd’s56 company of the 47th was to follow, to discover whether the enemy held the south bank. Light’s platoon crossed at 7.35 p.m. on the 9th and were fired on by a machine-gun but, edging forward, found the south bank abandoned. At 8.30 p.m. Hibberd’s company landed from a barge on the beach south of the Adele and were being guided forward by Light when an enemy party opened fire.
The enemy here had a decided advantage situated as he was in a defensive position whilst our troops had only a vague idea of the country (wrote a diarist). The night was pitch black. ... Troops were obliged to move in single file and ... hold on to each other’s bayonets. Two attempts were made to encircle the enemy – one from the beach and one from the river ... hampered by lightning flashes which revealed each movement.
At length the company was withdrawn, its role was reconnaissance, and, in any event, there did not seem to be time to dig in before daylight. That evening a Japanese gun opened fire – the first encountered in this area – and its shells caused seven casualties at forward headquarters.
On the 10th Monaghan sent forward to Major Gregory,57 temporarily commanding the 47th, four anti-tank and two field guns to fire point-blank at the enemy’s positions in thick scrub across the Adele. At 6.20 a.m. on the 11th these guns pounded the enemy’s posts at ranges of 600 to 800 yards and Japanese guns replied. At 8.20, after Corporal Keed58 had secured a rope on the south bank in full view of the enemy, a platoon crossed the river by assault boat, supported by mortar and machine-gun fire, and without loss. Next day, however, the forward companies were sharply shelled, and enemy pill-boxes were encountered. They lost 8 killed and 31 wounded but pressed on and seized the Hupai mouth and a log crossing over that river some 800 yards inland.
Monaghan now considered the stage set for the capture of Mawaraka. On 13th January, however, Bridgeford ordered him to halt and secure his position, and to send not more than one battalion of infantry and no artillery south of the Adele. Prisoners’ statements, captured papers and patrol reports suggested that the enemy was reinforcing the Kupon–Nigitan–Mendai area on the Australian flank, and the Mawaraka area, and that a strong counter-attack seemed likely. In addition to slowing down the 29th Brigade’s advance, Bridgeford sent the 2/8th Commando inland to reconnoitre the Kupon–Mosina–Sisiruai area and discover what the enemy was about. Only one company of the 47th was left south of the Adele.
However, the threat did not develop and patrols pressed on. On the 16th a platoon of the 47th led by Lieutenant Mullaly59 crossed the
Hupaisapani – the southern mouth of the Hupai – and, supported by mortars, overcame pill-boxes barring the way to Mawaraka. Mullaly himself silenced two pill-boxes with grenades.
On 17th January the 42nd, which had been patrolling on the left flank, began to relieve the 47th; that day a patrol entered Mawaraka without opposition and reported that the enemy’s positions were to the east in the direction of Makotowa.
In the following days a long-range patrol of the New Guinea Battalion landed from the sea and probed forward to Motupena Point, where they surprised a Japanese listening post. Meanwhile patrols had moved deep into the Sisiruai area. On the morning of 19th January a patrol led by Lance-Sergeant Cooper60 of the 15th Battalion with native guides returned to his company having penetrated, he believed, about ten miles into the enemy’s area. About 3,000 yards from the base he had come to a deserted village, called by the natives Old Sisiruai 2. Thence they advanced to Sisiruai proper where the Australians saw some 75 Japanese, but were not observed. They went on to a third village, and returned without having been seen. On the 19th Bridgeford ordered Monaghan not to advance beyond Mawaraka, but to await relief by the 7th Brigade.61
Meanwhile the 42nd Battalion had been patrolling forward of Mawaraka. On 19th January three patrols set out. One, under Lieutenant P. E. Steinheuer, went through Mawaraka, and along the Mosigetta Road. Lieutenant Collier’s62 platoon moved south through the bush to strike the same road farther east and Lieutenant Lindsay’s63 to strike the road still farther east. They reported the road to be overgrown but capable of carrying trucks. Later all three patrols clashed with Japanese. Lindsay’s found a group of pill-boxes surrounded by wire and attacked and took the position, killing seven Japanese. Lindsay remained there and was joined by Collier. The map was so faulty that Lieut-Colonel Byrne was doubtful exactly where they were and a patrol which was sent out to find them was ambushed. Next day (the 20th) the position was found and relieved and patrols moved farther east. Lieutenant Courtney64 established a post 500 yards farther along the track. On the 23rd the relief of the 29th Brigade by the 7th began and was completed four days later.
In December General Hyakutake ordered the abandonment of Shortland and Fauro Islands so that he could strengthen his reserve at Buin where 70 per cent of the force was now concentrated. He decided that the enemy was determined to conquer Bougainville and realised that the decisive battles must be fought in the south. He ordered, however, that no major battle was yet to be fought even in the southern sector; the object for the present was to delay the enemy and cause him as many casualties as possible.
“Army staff officers although fully agreeing with the GOC’s observations were at a loss to account for the allied policy and felt that the actions would make no impression on the course of the war and were absolutely pointless.”65
When, during January, the Australians continued to advance along the coast the possibility of a sea-borne attack began to seem remote. After the abandonment of Mawaraka the Japanese commanders decided that the time had come to make stronger delaying attacks and risk greater loss of life.
The possibility of carrying out a sea-borne attack to speed up operations by landing behind the Japanese was fully considered by II Corps. It had to be abandoned as there were insufficient craft to transport troops and ensure their subsequent maintenance. It was considered that any such landing, to be effective, would have had to be made in brigade strength at feast.
From 6th January onwards the 2/8th Commando Squadron had relieved companies of the 42nd Battalion to enable them to take part in the southward push. Major Winning considered his new rote a somewhat imposing one for such a force.
The area. previously held by a battalion, was large and the responsibility great for a unit of squadron strength without support weapons (he wrote). On 10
January 4 Battery 2 Aust Field Regiment was placed in support ... and the doubtful position greatly relieved. Owing to the paucity of information received from 42 Battalion, it was necessary to have patrols traverse and plot the track systems in the immediate vicinity. These two factors prevented long-range patrolling. ... Most activity was in the B Troop area where patrols made contact on five days along the Perei Road, each time striking the enemy in ambush and finding extreme difficulty, due to the pit-pit (sago) swamps, in manoeuvring off the track. Almost nightly enemy harassed our perimeter, setting off booby-traps and throwing grenades.
From the 6th to the 13th in nine clashes 10 Japanese were killed; one Australian was killed and 5 were wounded.66
On 15th January, it will be recalled, the squadron was given a new task: active reconnaissance of the Kupon, Nigitan, Mosina, Mendai, Sisiruai areas, but on the 23rd this was altered to securing Tadolina and Sovele Mission, thus again protecting the flank of the brigade on the coast. The leading section arrived at Sovele on 25th January.
In occasional touch with Winning’s squadron on the inland flank were two irregular forces – Angau patrols whose roles were to collect information and do what they could to rescue natives from occupied areas, and Lieutenant Mason’s force of tried scouts and natives who had been allotted the mountain area above Kieta.
Winning and Mason, the two commanders in the mountain area, had much in common, and, in particular, each was restless under authority.
Each of these leaders possessed boundless energy, resource and confidence in his own ability and, it appears, his own indestructibility (wrote one who knew them then). Each was contemptuous to a degree of what Winning referred to as “red tape” and other less printable terms. Each invariably saw immediately the shortest route through any difficulty and took it. Winning was constrained by his command to move discreetly, but Mason who knew to the nth degree his own immense value in the campaign, imposed his own conditions and expected them to be met. On those occasions when he was under orders with which he did not agree, he ignored them, arguing that he was the man on the spot and therefore had a better idea of what was needed.
Each man had a thorough understanding of the natives whose friendship was so vital to his role in the campaign. Winning had learned his campaigning in New Guinea with an earlier commando squadron, while Mason had been a planter in the Kieta district of Bougainville. Each had the faculty of inspiring confidence and cooperation in the men he commanded, and each became a legend in his lifetime. It is not surprising that relations of these two men really never progressed beyond the stage of polite toleration, although they worked hand in hand throughout the campaign.
Mason set out with Sergeant Warner,67 Corporal White68 and thirty-three natives on 29th November along the Tagessi River. On 4th December he sent his sixteen carriers back to Torokina and continued to Lamparan with local natives carrying. He avoided Orami (whence could be seen Empress Augusta Bay from Torokina to Motupena Point) because the Japanese had a large garden there, and went on over the Crown Prince Range to
Sipuru, about 3,500 feet, where, he now knew, the natives, armed largely with captured Japanese rifles, were waging war against the Japanese. At Sipuru the newcomers learnt from the native leader of the Kapikavi people that there were 50 Japanese living on gardens in the neighbourhood, and the Kapikavi natives would have killed them but, hearing of Mason’s coming, they considered that they should wait to ask permission. Mason told the native leader to give the enemy an opportunity to surrender and wirelessed to his senior at Torokina, Flight Lieutenant Robinson, Deputy Supervising Intelligence Officer for the Northern Solomons, asking that food be dropped if the enemy surrendered. Robinson replied advising Mason to refrain from guerrilla tactics – “the main object at present is to get out information and remain unobserved”. Mason replied: “There is a war on here.”
After this (he wrote later) we carried on in the usual way, but did not report killings, as we could hardly stop here with the enemy being killed all round us, without taking some part.
The Japanese in the Kapikavi country refused to surrender, whereupon the natives killed ten and besieged the survivors. Mason’s native scouts brought in five natives who had worked for the Japanese as police. These men had travelled widely and knew much about the enemy’s strength and defences, and he enlisted three of them. He was distressed to find that the natives in the area, having obeyed advice contained in propaganda leaflets up to two years before, had left the enemy, then had been hounded from one garden after another and were starving. Mason considered it a grave mistake to tell natives to leave the enemy when there was no plan to rehabilitate them and, a law unto himself in his own territory, always told them to remain with the enemy until the time was ready to revolt. He appealed to Torokina for food for “many native women and children starving owing to having left the Japanese and their gardens”, and added: “The men are doing a great job. Have ceased to report their killings. Natives keeping the enemy from the hills and food ... over a hundred
women and children around us starving. All their men are away fighting the Nips.” As a result food was dropped.
Mason complained at this stage of delay in obtaining supplies from Torokina. At Torokina Robinson worked under the general direction of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, but under the command of II Corps, and was finding that II Australian Corps was not as easy to work with, from his point of view, as XIV American Corps had been. The American corps had given the AIB group all the equipment it wanted and allowed it great latitude. The II Corps staff at this stage wished to direct its activities in detail. Robinson who was acting under instructions from GHQ sought to be paraded to Savige, who instructed his staff that the AIB were to gain Intelligence in their own way and to be given cooperation. “Although there were some pinpricks later and a certain amount of jealousy,” wrote Robinson later, “matters between our organisation and II Australian Corps were cordial, General Savige, Brigadier Garrett and Colonel Wilson were always very helpful and I will go as far as to say appreciative of any efforts we achieved,” but the range of stores obtainable was still “very restricted”. Robinson recorded also that “warnings of what the north-west season would do to some of [II Corps] beach positions, roads and river bridges was given but unfortunately not accepted”.69
Meanwhile in Mason’s area on 17th December a Japanese patrol twenty-three strong came to Orami (Mason knew that the enemy had found one of his camps near by). Natives harassed the patrol, killing one and wounding six, whom the survivors carried back the way they had come. The previous day natives had ambushed and killed six Japanese.
Before the war Mason, when manager of a plantation at Inus, had known Wong You, a Chinese storekeeper at Kieta. Wong You was now interned at Kieta with other fellow-countrymen. Being within range of Kieta, Mason wrote an unsigned note to Wong You advising him to escape. This was passed by hand from one native to another until it reached Wong You. Three days later (18th December) Mason received a reply, unaddressed and signed “Inns Store”, saying that Wong and thirty-five others would escape that night. This Wong did with all but one of his thirty-five. Mason wrote afterwards:
On 23rd December at 2 p.m. Wong You, carrying his baby son and accompanied by a Cantonese coolie who had escaped from the Japanese with the Bougainville Chinese, arrived at our camp. I had known Wong for over twenty years. He was a capable, friendly, humorous self-made Chinese merchant about 50 years old, of some standing in Kieta. ... He states that he owed his life to Tashiro, Japanese Intelligence Officer, who had told the officer in charge, who had accused Wong of withholding information concerning myself, that “this man has known Mason twenty years. You he has known only a day. You cannot expect him to betray a lifelong friend to a stranger.” Wong, a former shadow of himself with drawn face which was covered with tinea, arrived with a smile on his face and a joke on his lips.
The other Chinese had been left on another track, in accordance with Mason’s instructions. There were 11 men, 5 women and 18 children, all
in pitiful condition, having had a ration of 12 pounds of sweet potato a week. Even so they had broken out of the compound and made the long climb to safety. Mason was unsure how the Japanese guard had been disposed of and seems not to have questioned Wong closely, but it appeared that the Chinese had given the guard something to drink that night before the escape.
In the meantime Mason and his agents had induced natives carrying Japanese ammunition and supplies along the tracks from Buin to Numa Numa to desert, and at length had 400 natives and the 35 Chinese assembled at various places in their area, and all had to be fed.
Information now came that there was a large enemy patrol at Orami (Mason wrote afterwards), another from Kaino coming via Forma, and yet another at Kovidau, who I suspected were searching for the Chinese. They had been planning for some time, according to our information, a mopping-up of the “fifth column” as our natives were called.
Meanwhile a Wirraway that had been sent to drop Christmas rations to Mason crashed. At noon a native brought him a note from Flight Lieutenant Cory70 and Flying Officer Tucker,71 the crew, both of whom were injured. So fast did Mason’s couriers bring him news that he was reading the note as Torokina began to wireless that the aircraft was overdue. Mason told Cory and Tucker to lie low for the present in the care of the ever-loyal natives of Mau; so they nursed their severe injuries, lived on the cake and Christmas puddings their aircraft had been carrying, and regularly sent cheerful letters to Mason.
Late on Christmas Day natives brought the alarming news that several Japanese patrols had begun to reach the area. The refugee natives fled. Mason, with a small selected party, carried the vital wireless equipment higher into the mountains until they halted on a ridge at 4,000 feet. Next day, believing the Japanese had withdrawn, they returned, but found a patrol of twenty-six Japanese in their old area and marched to Darena. Here, however, difficulties arose with the local natives because of sectarian feeling: the local natives were Roman Catholics and most of those with Mason were Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists, and were refused food. Mason therefore moved down the Luluai River to a hiding-place.
The food question had now become grave, so we packed off 200 refugees to Torokina and put the Chinese on the road also. ... I saw all of [the Chinese] as they stumbled by ... on the road to Tabarata (where an Angau party was to receive them). The island Chinese girls and women are usually shy but these “fell over me” in an endeavour to express their gratitude. They bowed, Japanese fashion, with every word they uttered. ... They were all in a pitiful condition, barefooted, with an odd assortment of covering. ... Some natives died on the road, others left their children to die in the bush. One little naked emaciated girl we found was given to natives to care for.
The Chinese refugees reached the area patrolled by the 2/8th Commando on 3rd January, men of the commando and Angau having met them at Tabarata.72
A Wirraway dropped “storepedoes” on 31st December and again on 2nd January. As a result Mason’s party had enough food for a week or two, provided the 200 natives remaining with him went back to their home areas and took their chances with the Japanese, which they did. On 1st January Cory and Tucker, both still handicapped by their painful injuries, had joined Mason, and on the 3rd Corporal White, with scouts and carriers, set off with them to the Tabarata rendezvous, where they were handed over to the army.
During this time the redoubtable Kapikavi men continued to besiege the Japanese. They now sent news that a column of about 100 Japanese from Buin had marched out to relieve the garrison, but the Kapikavi had ambushed them in a ravine and pelted them with grenades. Only fifteen managed to return to Buin; the others scattered or were killed. An air attack on the Japanese garrison called for by Mason destroyed all the Japanese huts except one, but the Japanese fled to the shelter of a creek while the bombing was in progress.
On the 5th Mason received a signal pointing out that II Corps wanted information from the Buin area and the Siwai District to the west of it which was to be Mason’s next area of operations, and adding: “Don’t want to stick your neck out unduly.” This “riled” Mason; he replied that he would need more men if he was to cover both areas and asked for Sergeant Wigley, Corporal Thompson73 and Corporal Matthews74 or the American, Staff-Sergeant Nash, with ten scouts. He was told that they were not available, whereupon he replied that it was
not practical to cover Buin–Siwai from here. Added to our present area would represent three-quarters of Bougainville.
Thus Mason had a triple responsibility: to obtain information for II Corps, to care for the natives over a wide area, and to support a guerilla war that at times was severe and widespread. In January there was much fighting in the headwaters of the Aropa River, where, in one week, twenty-four Japanese were killed. In mid-January some fifty Japanese marched on Forma to raid gardens. “An ambush got four with arrows in the stomach. ‘They have got no medicine for that,’ the natives said.”
Mason arranged an air attack on Toborei, headquarters of the Japanese in the Kieta area, and his scouts marked the target with flags and smoke. The camp was wiped out and the natives, waiting in the surrounding bush, killed six Japanese who escaped the bombing. At the end of January, Mason and his group had been in the bush for two months.
The party inserted into Choiseul, where there were some 700 Japanese, consisted initially of Sub-Lieutenant Andresen, Sergeant Selmes,75 both experienced scouts who knew the Solomons well, and a signaller. For eight days ending on 2nd December a patrol of the 7th Battalion from Mono Island, led by Lieutenant Rhoades76 (RANVR) of the AIB and Lieutenant Nicholson77 of the 7th Battalion moved about on Choiseul guided by Andresen’s native scouts. Andresen was withdrawn because of illness and later Rhoades took charge. The patrol armed increasing numbers of natives, carried on guerilla warfare and guided air strikes by the New Zealand squadrons. These harassing tactics appear to have been the reason why the Japanese in mid-1945 began to withdraw from Choiseul in barges by night.