Chapter 14: Maprik and Wewak Taken
SIX weeks had passed since the 17th Brigade had been given the task of taking Maprik. After the hard fighting of February and March against a resolute enemy determined to exact a price for every Australian move into their food-producing country the time had come for the final thrust. On 3rd April Brigadier Moten issued new instructions to his two forward battalions. These allotted the 2/7th Battalion the task of capturing Maprik and the line of the Screw River from the Agricultural Station north to a point about three miles upstream in a direct line, and of securing the high ground overlooking Maprik landing ground. Hayforce was to operate on the right of this battalion and make an airstrip able to accommodate Douglas transports. As early as January, first Lieut-Colonel Parbury of the 2/7th and then Moten and Wing Commander Hall1 of No. 8 Squadron had flown over Maprik in search of a site for an airfield and had chosen an area of kunai about eight miles south of Maprik on the Government track leading to the Sepik – the Maprik–Marui road. On the left of the brigade the 2/6th Battalion was to advance to the Screw River and prevent the enemy from moving north from Maprik.
In the early operations in the mountain area there had not been enough indentured labourers to meet all needs, and from time to time local “casual labourers” were recruited by Angau. Eventually 950 indentured labourers were allotted to the 17th Brigade. Normally 350 were allocated to a battalion, of whom 218 were in a battalion pool and 33 were allotted to each company permanently, and normally an additional 30 added when the company was on the move.
Meanwhile patrols had been pressing on from village to village. On 28th March, for example, Sergeant J. W. Hedderman, of the 2/6th, a notable leader in these as in earlier operations, had led a reconnaissance to Kulkuil and Gwanginan. Next day he led a fighting patrol which took Kulkuil with a carefully-planned surprise attack. On the 30th Lieutenant Errey’s2 platoon (16), with Hedderman as platoon sergeant, attacked Gwanginan. Hedderman confused the enemy by shouting to imaginary platoons to right and left (thus incidentally drawing fire on himself); and when the leading section was halted he brought down supporting fire and enabled it to move again. A man was wounded within 10 yards of the enemy’s pits; Hedderman went forward, killed two Japanese with grenades, and dragged his comrade to safety. The enemy were 25 to 30 strong and the attack failed despite these gallant efforts. Hedderman covered the withdrawal, firing until all others had gone.
On 30th March a patrol found Mairoka clear of the enemy and on 4th April Lieutenant Gordon’s3 platoon established a patrol base there. On the 7th Errey’s platoon attacked a village to the east of the Milak villages but without success, Lieutenant Errey being killed, and Sergeant Layfield4 wounded. Chicanambu was occupied on the 9th.
On the right Hayforce found Wora too strongly held on the 10th, but both it and a near-by village were empty on the 12th, the Japanese evidently having withdrawn north to Bainyik. Major Hay had thus secured the site of the proposed airstrip. It was estimated that it could be made usable in 11 days. The Pioneers of the 2/7th Battalion under Lieutenant Edwards,5 with the help of about 200 enthusiastic natives, formed the strip, which was named Hayfield. Inevitably their only implements were hand
tools, with improvised graders and rollers made from bush timber and dragged by the native workers.
Meanwhile the 2/7th Battalion in the centre, pressing on, found that the enemy were well prepared to defend Maprik. The dominating ground was a long steep ridge running generally north and south through the Maprik villages and 1,000 yards west of the landing ground, and the Japanese closely guarded all approaches. Thus on 12th April a patrol to a point overlooking Maprik was ambushed and three Australians and a native were killed. On the 14th a patrol advancing from Wilgolman encountered a strong position with covered pits guarding a junction of three tracks; mortar fire failed to dislodge the enemy.
In preparation for the final attack brigade headquarters was moved to Abungai, that of the 2/6th to Kulkuil and that of the 2/7th to a point near Gualigem. On 15th April two companies of the 2/6th (Captain B. J. French’s and Major A. G. S. Edgar’s) began to drive eastward to the Screw River. The enemy was bombarded from the air and with mortars and machine-guns, but resisted strongly from well-dug positions.6
On 17th April there were three clashes in the 2/6th’s area; in one of them Lieutenant Jamieson7 and 12 others found an enemy group dug in at Wambak and killed probably ten. On the 18th there were four clashes; in the Kombichagi area Lieutenant Gordon and 12 men found the enemy dug in; one Australian, Corporal Taylor,8 was killed in the ensuing fight. On the 19th there were two patrol clashes; and a patrol entered Bungara, hitherto strongly held, without opposition.
Parbury had issued his orders for the capture of Maprik on 12th April. In the first phase Captain Pearson’s company of the 2/7th was to take a long kunai-covered spur to the north-east of Maprik 2; and next day Captain Baird’s advancing from the north-west was to take Maprik 1. Each of these companies had 140 natives under command. Captain Arnold’s company was to press on Bainyik, and the fourth company was in reserve. Pearson’s company advanced on 15th April to the line of Nimrod Creek where they encountered heavily-defended and camouflaged pill-boxes astride the spur up which they intended to approach the kunai ridge. The advance was halted here, but the enemy’s positions were closely examined, and next day the company pressed on from the north-west. Soon after the move began the leading platoon saw a Japanese manning a light machine-gun on a spur overlooking them. This position was fired on with the mortars and by 11.30 a.m. the platoon was at the kunai patch without having been fired on. Three hours later the whole company was on the kunai ridge. Patrols killed two Japanese in the area. A boy-line arrived in the afternoon. Heavy rain fell causing an intervening stream to rise until
it became a raging torrent, and as the carriers were returning one of their escort was swept away and drowned.
The leading men of Baird’s company moved out at 6.30 a.m. on the 17th towards a House Tamboran (native meeting house) just north of Maprik 1. The first and second bounds were not eventful, but as soon as the third began a Japanese sentry shot and mortally wounded the leading scout. The third bound was completed by 3.30 p.m. and it was decided to occupy a defensive position at that point 300 to 400 yards from the final objective.
That night Pearson’s company was mortared and next morning it was found that Japanese had dug in on both flanks, those on the north-east being on sloping ground defiladed from machine-gun fire and offering a difficult target for mortars. Three Australians were wounded, one mortally, and the flooding of the streams to the rear made it impossible to carry back the wounded or to bring forward rations.
On 18th April Baird’s patrols found that the enemy was still dug in in the House Tamboran area with weapon-pits covering all approaches. They were bombarded by 4.2-inch and 3-inch mortars and Vickers guns throughout the day, as were the Japanese dug in on both sides of Pearson’s company. On the fourth day – the 19th – this company made a two-platoon attack on the Japanese to the South-west. Lieutenant Clews’ platoon edged forward along the direct approach while Lieutenant R. W. Saunders9 led his men in an encircling move on the right to a spur and knoll dominating the enemy. Throughout these moves the Japanese “were plastered with mortars, Vickers, and rifle grenades and LMG fire and the final assault resulted in a veritable hail of small arms fire”. The Japanese at length broke and fled leaving 10 dead. The Australians lost one man killed and 9 wounded, 7 of them only slightly. The enemy position was extensive, freshly dug, and able to hold 60 to 70 men.
Baird’s company was still held up. On 20th April Lieutenant Bowden10 led a patrol to the summit of the House Tamboran feature and drove the enemy off, killing six. One man was killed; Bowden was wounded but remained on duty. Immediately the whole company occupied the feature which gave a view of the Maprik strip, Neligum villages, Katoma village, and the hills east of the Screw.
Next day two accurate air strikes were made on the ridge between the two forward companies. Lieutenant Kilpatrick11 led a patrol from Baird’s company to the Maprik strip killing four Japanese on the way. The strip was found to be overgrown with kunai grass three feet high, but firm and well drained beneath and with only a few bomb craters. A patrol to the Bainyik area encountered three Japanese sentries, killed two, and came under fire from a well-dug position. Lance-Corporal Johnson12 was killed
and two wounded and the patrol withdrew. On the 22nd the troops were mainly engaged in patrolling to clear the Maprik area. Only at Bainyik and Maprik 2 was the enemy found still to be in occupation. Next day patrolling was continued and it was decided that the whole Maprik area west of the Screw was clear of the enemy and it was doubtful whether there were any Japanese west of the Screw south to its junction with the Ninab. The enemy was well dug in, however, at Bainyik.
On 25th April a patrol from Baird’s company crossed the Screw and moved on towards Midpum Creek, came under fire 300 yards from it and withdrew. Next day a fighting patrol was sent out and it overcame a party of 7 Japanese killing 3 but later came under fire from across the Midpum.
Parbury’s headquarters was established on a site above Maprik on the 28th. Next day Wing Commander Hall landed on Hayfield in an Auster and reported that, after further levelling, the strip would be able to take a Dakota.13
The opening of an airfield in the Torricellis would come none too soon for the toiling troops and native carriers. The march from Suain to Maprik took five hard days, with a staging camp, supplied by air dropping, at the end of each stage.14
For some time Angau had been maintaining a patrol base at Drekikir manned by an officer and 12 police, and to it came a number of reports of a Japanese party about 50 strong which had moved west through M’Bras to Tau, where they had settled. The natives said that they were moving against Aitape. Consequently a platoon of the 2/5th Battalion under Lieutenant C. H. Miles left Aitape on 16th April and marched five days to Drekikir and thence, accompanied by Captain D. M. Fienberg of Angau, patrolled south to find this party. Miles reported that on 24th April he had found them at Kubriwat, had killed two in the engagement there, but could not dislodge the survivors. He continued to harass them and on 3rd May the whole party surrendered: a Lieut-colonel (Tagenaka), 4 other officers and 37 men. They were marched to Maprik and flown thence to Aitape.
While Hayfield was being developed the 2/6th continued its arduous task of probing forward on the northern flank. Bungara was occupied on 20th April; on the 23rd five patrols were out, setting ambushes, burning villages being used by Japanese, and locating and cutting the enemy’s lines of communication. Next day there were two patrol clashes. A native reported that bombing had driven a party of 20 or 30 Japanese out of the Neligum villages but on 25th April a patrol under Lieutenant A. H. Seekamp found three there, drove these away, and burned the villages, which were occupied next day. Also on the 25th a patrol under the ubiquitous Sergeant Hedderman found Mangumbu strongly held.
Early in May Major Hay’s company probed forward to find approaches from the north to Yentagim. Next day Lieutenant E. C. Trethewie led a platoon to attack Yentagim where about 40 Japanese, well dug in, were encountered. The attack was supported by mortars and Vickers guns and lasted an hour and a half. By this time nine Japanese dead had been counted; the Australians’ ammunition was exhausted and they withdrew.
Two flame-throwers had now been received by the 2/7th and on 8th May these were used to drive the enemy from part of the narrow steep-sided Kumbungua ridge. The Japanese made off, abandoning 30 weapon-pits, but engaged the Australians from a knoll farther up the ridge. That day the diarist of the 2/7th wrote:
An interesting ceremony took place on the Maprik strip at 1600 hours to commemorate the end of the war in Europe and also the capture of Maprik. This consisted of a guard in which representatives from each company were present. ... The guard was smartly turned out having been issued with new clothes, hats and even boot-polish for the occasion. The guard marched on to the northern end of the strip where a Union Jack was flying, formed up and presented arms during the playing of the Last Post. A minute’s silence then took place followed by the playing of Reveille. ... A detachment of police boys led by a native corporal was also formed up before the flag and carried out drill movements in time with the movements of the guard.15
On 12th May Captain Cole of Angau arranged a native sing-sing to celebrate the fall of Maprik. Natives attended decked with flowers and paint. Cole told them that Wewak had fallen and that the natives were to help the Australians coming inland from that direction.
Flame-throwers were proving very effective. On 10th May the 2/7th occupied Waigakum 1, and on the 11th a platoon with flame-throwers attacked and took a position where the defenders abandoned 50 packs. Another platoon approached the knoll at the south end of the Kumbungua ridge from the south, attacked up a steep slope and put to flight the defenders who abandoned 25 packs and 100 sticks of gelignite. The Japanese opened fire, however, from higher up and, the ground being unsuitable for defence, the platoon withdrew.
On the 13th, after an air attack that stripped the objective of vegetation, a platoon entered central Kumbungua without opposition and found 24 covered weapon-pits. Next day 21 Beauforts made an even heavier air attack on Kumbungua – “the most effective air strike in support of our troops yet experienced”. After it a platoon occupied the ridge against little resistance.
Patrols took Waigakum 2 on the 17th. On the 19th a platoon, guided by natives, surprised six Japanese in a garden South-east of Kalabu. Here Private Jenkins16 came upon one Japanese asleep outside a weapon-pit.
As he was within feet of me (wrote Jenkins later) I thought it was an excellent opportunity to take a prisoner so I woke him with a light kick and pulled him to his feet with my left hand, keeping my Owen gun in my right. I had managed to get my prisoner some paces from his position when a slight noise alerted his mates and they opened fire on the patrol. With this the Jap broke from my grasp and I was forced to shoot him. One other Japanese was killed and the others made off.
On 26th May Lieutenant Wiles’17 platoon of the 2/7th cleared the area north-east of Kalabu and next day attacked a ridge 1,600 yards to the east after exceptionally heavy support had been provided: 12 Beauforts attacked, then the ridge was bombarded by two field guns, by 4.2-inch and 3-inch mortars, and Vickers guns. Despite this fire the Japanese stood firm. That day Lieutenant Darryl with two Australians and two natives, in a daring reconnaissance, found the Yamil area strongly defended with all approaches guarded. Patrols also found that Malba was on the dominating ground in the area ahead, and it was heavily bombarded. It was attacked on 29th May by a platoon which gained part of the area but was forced out by intense machine-gun fire. On 31st May, however, two platoons made a brilliant attack after bombardment by artillery and mortars. Fifteen bodies and 19 rifles were found, the Australian losses being one platoon commander (Bowden) and two others wounded.
The first DC-3 aircraft landed on Hayfield on 14th May and took off four patients. Thereafter supplies, tractors, bulldozers, graders, jeeps and field guns were flown in; and practically all troops arrived in the area and departed from it by air.
With the advent of machinery via Hayfield a road was constructed to Maprik and then turned east through the trackless jungle to follow our advancing troops. Jeep transport revolutionised our supply, evacuation of casualties and native labour problems and henceforth we had no real worries in these matters.18
Moten instructed the 2/7th Battalion to allot one company to the task of manning the “main line of resistance”. It would man nine defended localities each with not less than a section, and each section would send a patrol to the section on its right every four hours and at all times have one sentry on duty.
During May the 2/6th on the northern flank continued to patrol eastward and the enemy, harassed by patrols and by air attack, slowly moved back. Mangumbu was found to be empty of Japanese on 1st May and occupied next day. At this stage, because of the commitments round Wewak, the 17th Brigade was informed that only one air strike each day would be available to it for the next two weeks or so.
Intelligence gathered up to 11th May suggested that the enemy was strong in the Kaboibus area and round Yamil and their line of withdrawal would be towards Mount Turu. Mendamen and Jamei 2 were also firmly held. Both areas were harassed by mortar and machine-gun fire, and a patrol found a good approach to Jamei 2 along a spur. Flame-throwers
had now reached the 2/6th and with them Lieutenant B. W. Moloney to train teams to handle the new weapon. On the 20th a platoon attacked towards Jamei with two flame-throwers, but encountered fire from well-dug positions with overhead cover and the attack failed. Moloney and Privates Miller19 and Ward20 were killed and Lieutenant Fahl21 and three others wounded. Moloney fell so close to the enemy’s posts that his body could not be recovered and the flame-throwers, both damaged, fell into the enemy’s hands. Twelve Beauforts attacked this position on 22nd May and for the next few days much fire was poured into the positions round Jamei; by the 25th the Japanese had had enough and the area was occupied without opposition. In preparation for an advance to Yamil Lieutenant Trethewie and 15 men of Major Hay’s company, which had now rejoined the 2/6th, sought and found a suitable company position at Loanim. From there Hay moved a platoon forward to a ridge overlooking Yamil; it was attacked and he was seriously wounded.
In April and May the 2/6th had lost 11 killed and 31 wounded; it had counted 93 Japanese killed, and the natives attached to it, of whom one was killed and four wounded, had killed 65 Japanese.
The 2nd Battery of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, which had been formed into an infantry company, was sent into Hayfield early in May to protect the field and, while doing so, to patrol to the south.22 This was the beginning of a long period of deep patrolling by these gunners turned into infantrymen. As was the general practice in the Torricellis each patrol was accompanied by a “sentry boy” who knew the country in detail. Other natives sometimes joined the patrols just for the love of it.
They seemed to be able to sense a kill and often, when a patrol was about to get into a “blue”, they would appear from nowhere, furtively, silently, like bludgers coming in for mess. They would come with long, murderous spears, with tomahawks and machetes, as keen as boxing fans to see the blood flow, and as disappointed if it didn’t.23
On 17th May a patrol of 30 led by Captain Johnson,24 the commander of the company, with natives, set out to attack an enemy-occupied village in the Nintigo area. They approached with stealth, formed up at the jungle edge upon a frontage of about 50 yards and attacked through the village firing as they went. They were well among the huts before they met any fire. Then Bombardier Nottingham25 and Gunners Daley26 and
Taylor27 were hit, but Nottingham and Daley went on. The advance did not slacken. The attackers set fire to the huts; 14 Japanese were killed.
The doughty Johnson led out another patrol on 24th May, this time of 30 all ranks in three detachments each commanded by a lieutenant; the task was to destroy some 37 well-armed Japanese in two positions at Mikau village. After reconnaissance parties under Lieutenants Caldwell28 and Perkins29 had found suitable approaches to both positions, Johnson gave orders for simultaneous attacks on both before dawn next day. When preparing to attack, an Owen in Caldwell’s group – the main body – was accidentally fired, and the enemy opened up. This group retired and formed a perimeter; but Perkins’ group took the firing to be the signal to attack and went in and took their objective, Gunner Kitching30 doing a fine job with the Bren gun. The main body then formed up and attacked with success, Bombardier Reed31 playing a leading part. Thirty packs and rifles were found. Only one Australian was wounded.32
Early in April the remnants of the 41st Japanese Division retreated to the northwest of Wora, but the Australians occupied Wora, thus boxing up the Japanese. Mano, however, bided his time and slipped round to the south. Miyake Force was still in the forward area and in late April its main line of resistance ran through Imbia–Neligum–Kumbungua–Bainyik, but in May it was withdrawn to Loanim–Yamil–Kumbungua. Orders were then received to hold a north-south line in this area until 31st May; in June the force withdrew to Ulupu and, soon afterwards, Aoniaru.
The loss of Waigakum to the 2/7th Battalion in mid-May had a very upsetting effect on the Japanese. It was the point of junction between Miyake Force, now 800 strong, and the 41st Division and, according to General Yoshiwara, this loss led directly to the withdrawal from Kalabu and Loanim.
On 5th May General Yoshiwara handed over his responsibilities to General Nakai of the 20th Division. On 11th June, however, Yoshiwara was given the task of studying the possibility of establishing a separate area of resistance, self-supporting in food, on the Sepik.
Meanwhile, in the coastal sector, the offensive against Wewak had been in progress. As a preliminary move General Stevens had decided to move the 19th Brigade and other troops forward to the growing base at But. To make room for them the main body of the 16th Brigade was concentrated east of the But River. With the 2/3rd now in the Wonginara area, Brigadier King gave Colonel Cameron of the 2/2nd the task of securing the Autogi and Walanduum areas in the hills north of the Mabam
River, and this was achieved by 8th April. Patrols found the coast empty of Japanese as far east as Kofi.
The Japanese force in the Boiken area was now believed to number about 300, and its strongest fighting unit to be the III/66th Battalion, about 100 strong. Stevens on 7th April ordered King to take Karawop and Boiken and establish a beach-head across the Hawain River. Thus on 14th April the 2/1st Battalion (temporarily commanded by Major B. W. T. Catterns) moved from But to a position just in rear of the 2/2nd with orders to pass through and take the Karawop–Wisling area next day; one company was to take Karawop, one to clear the foothills to the south. On the 15th when the left company reached a point about a mile from Karawop mortar opened fire and soon had killed 5 men and wounded four. The enemy was bombarded and patrols sent out to find the mortar, but without success. Next day the right company continued its advance through the foothills where it took an enemy outpost. In the attack Private Bartholomew33 stepped into the open and, firing his Bren gun from the hip, stormed the enemy’s position, killing a machine-gunner and dispersing the others. Having fired all his own ammunition he turned the Japanese machine-gun on the enemy. Karawop village was occupied by the battalion without opposition and then Wisling. In later clashes nine Japanese were killed. From 21st April the brigade concentrated round Karawop.
The next task was to capture the mouth of the Hawain River. Thereupon, the 2/1st on 25th April occupied the 1800 Feature without opposition, while the 2/3rd to the north launched an attack on Boiken Plantation. The 2/3rd advanced with two companies forward – Major MacKenzie’s in the foothills of 1800 and Captain Gibbins’ astride the road – and with two tanks in support. About 1.30 p.m. Gibbins encountered the enemy dug in astride the road and the tanks were called forward. When Lieutenant Rumble’s34 platoon worked round the flank and the tanks attacked frontally the enemy was driven out leaving two dead. Next day in a similar
fight at Cholial the enemy fled leaving three dead, and a 37-mm gun which had exploded after firing two rounds without effect.
It was quite apparent that the Nips had no stomach for the tanks for there was ample evidence where they had speedily evacuated as the tanks approached. The advance along the coast for the last three days was the fastest of the campaign – a further argument for Major Cory35 in the use of tanks.36
Nineteen Indian prisoners were recovered and two more 37-mm guns captured that day in the foothills. Indian prisoners continued to come into the Australian lines in increasing numbers in the next few weeks.
We got in another goodly batch of Indians in the last few days (wrote an officer in May). They are a great race – Sikhs and Punjabis – great in adversity. It is most inspiring to see them come in. A few weeks ago a batch of 20 arrived, including a sergeant. All of them were weak and ragged, but as soon as they reached the road and were to be loaded on the lorry, the sergeant pulled them up and made them tidy their clothes to the best of their ability so that they would arrive at headquarters looking as presentable as possible. He organised them for their meal as well – the first decent one, I imagine, since February 1942, and made them wait until all were ready to begin. There is at least something ennobling in war, a spirit of service that seems to be so sadly lacking in so much of our country at present.
On 27th April the 2/2nd Battalion passed through the 2/3rd whose forward company was at Kalimboa and advanced to the Hawain, with Captain Lovett’s company in the lead. At 10.10 a.m. Captain Oliver’s37 company and the squadron of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment crossed the river in assault boats without opposition. Meanwhile on the right small groups of Japanese were driven from the hills west of the Hawain.
The 2/2nd Battalion thus carried out the final movement of the brigade’s advance. It was justly proud of its part in the thrust from Wank Creek to Karawop, and later across the Hawain. It was the swiftest advance of the campaign. There had been little resistance as far as Dagua but the fight for the mountain pass was bitter and costly, particularly in young officers and NCOs. Between 29th March and 6th April the battalion lost 20 killed or died of wounds and 50 wounded; 107 Japanese were killed. By 20th April only 10 of the 18 platoons were commanded by officers, and two of the companies, and the battalion itself, lacked seconds-in-command. The battalion was 246 under strength, the rifle companies being somewhat below half strength. The other battalions were not much better off.
The 2/3rd Battalion, patrolling south along Boiken Creek, now found the enemy in strength in the Koanumbo area. On 29th April a patrol led by Lieutenant F. J. Hoddinott found 15 Japanese digging in on a steep-sided spur there. On the 30th two platoons of Captain K. M. Boyer’s company attacked this position. After advancing about 50 yards they were halted by intense fire. Colonel Hutchison sent forward two more
platoons and on 1st May, after artillery bombardment, the position was taken, but it was found that the Japanese were dug in 100 yards to the west. This position was attacked next day.
The attack was carried out by arming the forward section with 3 Bren LMGs and 4 OSMGs [Owens] with an infantry flame-thrower following. The secondary growth was so dense as to preclude vision for more than 10 yards. The forward section, advancing and firing on the move, encountered heavy LMG fire from dug-in positions with overhead cover ... and here the flame-thrower [manned by Private McFarlane38] was brought into action. Although the density of the undergrowth limited its range to 20 yards, the effect of the weapon, combined with the continued advance and fire, caused the enemy to wildly withdraw over the precipitous sides.39
In this series of actions the 2/3rd lost 5 killed and 8 wounded; later a total of 28 enemy dead were found in the whole area. The extent of the field works suggested that the enemy had been about 50 strong. Patrols found that only about 15 now remained in the area and they were dug in on the 2400 Feature. These were driven out by air and artillery bombardment.
At this stage the 19th Brigade took over the advance. The 16th Brigade had been forward for more than three months and the three battalions had lost 85 killed and 192 wounded in a long series of actions. They and other units of the brigade had killed 909 Japanese and taken 27 prisoners.
The survivors in these weakened battalions were weary and often ill. The medical officer of the 2/3rd, for example, reported that early in May the men were beginning to show signs of the strain of 15 weeks in action.
The malaria rate began to rise rapidly (he wrote); skin lesions of all types were prevalent and tropical fatigue began to affect all ranks. ... On 29th May after four weeks at Boiken – weeks of continuous patrolling and sporadic clashes with the enemy – the battalion moved on to Boram Plantation. ... For the first three days sharp fighting ensued. ... Exhaustion, nervous strain and malaria now became uncontrollable, and brought the battalion to its knees. All companies were affected, and by the end of the first week in June, in most cases could scarcely muster one full platoon, and of these many were carrying on the fight with temperatures over 100 degrees. The CO was informed that the battalion could no longer carry on, and would require at least two months’ rest before they could be considered an effective fighting force again. ... In spite of the low state of health the morale of the troops has always been high.40
A machine-gun officer wrote afterwards:
It is difficult to describe the utter fatigue which this campaign imposed on all ranks and how even in May when everyone seemed to be at the end of their tether we managed to keep going until the operations concluded. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was not at any stage from the Danmap to the conclusion of the campaign relieved for rest. It has always amazed me that men could, for so long, continue in these very strenuous operations without relief. The physical
exhaustion and mental strain of continuous operations for many months in the jungle is beyond description.
The frequent evidence of Japanese atrocities had a remarkable effect on the morale of the troops. It developed a feeling of disgust which caused men to enter battle with a greater determination to eliminate the enemy whatever the cost.
Despite losses, weariness, and the nagging conviction that the campaign was not worth while, the men retained their pride in themselves and their leaders. In each attack young soldiers, or soldiers now in their sixth year of war, performed deeds of fine gallantry.
Had a yarn to some 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalion men today (says a private diary). They praised their officers – all the company commanders were men and a half. Reinforcement officers who had been “given away” on the Tableland were now being “paid”. The infantryman is always seeking men to praise: the stretcher bearers, the air force, the medical officers, the FOOs, the boongs – “you should have seen the boongs bringing in the wounded yesterday down the big hill”. At the same time a recent newspaper article about how the Australians are scrounging American gear and cannibalising captured Jap equipment to keep going was quoted with glee. Someone had seen it in a newspaper dropped by one of the passing airliners.
The advance had taken the Australians through an extensive Japanese base and airfield area, and along the coastal plain and in the foothills lay an immense amount of equipment: guns, trucks, wrecked aircraft, water-carts, bombs and ammunition, machine tools, medical and signal gear, small arms, clothing, dumps of fuel. And along the tracks, in huts or in the open were hundreds of skeletons of Japanese who had died of disease and malnutrition. No systematic count was made of the skeletons lying between the Danmap and the Hawain but in one small area, about Marabus, 250 were found.
We “won” an 8 Div truck today; what is left of this Japanese army came down through Malaya and has bequeathed us a lot of junk from the Far East (wrote a soldier in a letter home). Most of its trucks are Fords or Chevs with Singapore bodies and Java tyres, but only about one in twenty go. We have done fairly well for mechanical equipment, though, since we shot through the But, Dagua and Wewak airfields.
On 30th April Generals Blamey, Sturdee, Stevens and Berryman conferred at Lae about future operations round Wewak. Both Sturdee, who had visited the forward troops round Boiken a few days earlier, and Stevens said that they had the means to take Wewak. Blamey approved orders, drawn up by Stevens on the 27th, whereby the 19th Brigade should advance from the Hawain reaching Cape Worn by 14th May; Wewak should then be attacked by the 19th Brigade, moving along the coast, and the 2/6th Commando Regiment plus other detachments landed east of Cape Moem and supported by naval bombardment. Blamey gave instructions that a battalion of the 8th Brigade, then based on Madang, should be ready to support the commando regiment if needed. The 17th Brigade was to continue patrol actions round Maprik.
At an earlier stage a landing on Muschu Island had been contemplated, but this idea was now abandoned. An effort to reconnoitre the island had led to disaster to the scouting party. This had begun on 11th April
when Lieutenants Gubbay41 and Barnes42 and six others were taken to a point near Muschu Island in a naval motor launch and went ashore in folboats with the task of extracting one prisoner, reconnoitring the beaches in an area where a landing in force was contemplated, and reconnoitring the enemy’s defensive positions generally.
The folboats overturned while landing, and all signal equipment was lost. The party hid the boats and made a base 100 yards inland. Thence they travelled east past Cape Barabar. Next morning they caught, bound and gagged a Japanese but, when a Japanese patrol was heard near by, he dragged off the gag and shouted. He was shot. When returning to their base the party detected an ambush and moved inland and thence to the coast, where they built a raft and put to sea. The raft, however, was washed on to a reef and most of the weapons were lost. Gubbay, Barnes, Lance-Corporal Walklate43 and Private Eagleton44 each put to sea on a log in the hope that one of them would be seen by an aircraft and be able to ask that the motor launch pick them up on 13th–14th April. The remainder under Sergeant Weber45 moved to the east coast to await a signal or rescue but the men on the logs were not heard from again. The other men moved inland on 14th April and were attacked by a patrol; Sapper Dennis46 killed two Japanese, but after the fight he did not see his other three companions again. Dennis went stealthily to Cape Samein, killing one Japanese and destroying a heavy machine-gun on the way. On 17th April at 7 p.m. he put to sea on a surf-board he had made, drifted to the mainland and landed just west of Cape Pus at 4 a.m. next day. He was recovered by a patrol on the Hawain River at 2 p.m. on the 20th, six days after the affray in which the last of his companions had been killed.
The strength of the enemy in the Wewak area was estimated at from 500 to 1,000, including the headquarters of the denuded 51st Division, with parts of its 66th and 102nd Regiments, the 25th Airfield Battalion, and other units under command.
Stevens’ orders to the 19th Brigade were to concentrate in Boiken Plantation and thence advance and destroy the enemy from Cape Worn to Yarabos, and at Ranimboa; cut the tracks south of Wirui Mission; and then destroy the enemy in the area of Wewak Point and Cape Moem. Among the additional troops placed under Brigadier Martin’s command were “C” Squadron of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment and the 2/7th Commando Squadron; in support was nearly all the artillery of the division.
“Farida Force”, as the group which was to land east of Wewak was named, included the 2/6th Commando Regiment less the 2/7th Squadron, two 75-mm guns of the 1st Anti-Tank Battery, one company of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion organised as infantry, a platoon of machine-gunners from the same battalion, two detachments of mortars, and other ancillary detachments. The total strength was 623. The troops were to be put ashore by the 43rd Landing Craft Company (Major Mitchell47) from one LCM and nine ALCs, with two ALCs armed with mortars for
close support. D-day for this landing was to be 11th May but the 19th Brigade’s advance was to begin on the 3rd. In the first phase the 2/4th Battalion was to wipe out the enemy in the Cape Wom–Yarabos area and the 2/8th to clear Ranimboa; in the second the 2/11th would cut the tracks south from Wirui Mission and take the high hill on which the mission stood, and the commando regiment would take Sauri; in the third Wewak Point would be captured.
There had been changes in the command of all battalions of the 19th Brigade since its earlier period in action. Lieut-Colonel G. S. Cox and Lieut-Colonel Green48 (both originally officers of the 2/2nd Battalion) had been appointed to the 2/4th and 2/11th respectively, and the 2/8th was led by Major C. L. Simpson in the absence of Lieut-Colonel Howden at the Tactical School. The brigade was taken from Aitape to But in barges, and thence to Boiken in motor vehicles. On 3rd May the 2/4th with three troops of tanks advanced from the Hawain and covered six miles without opposition. Next day it reached Wom without incident and by nightfall patrols were on the Waringe River. On the 5th and 6th a few Japanese stragglers were killed. On the night of the 6th patrols were sent forward to reconnoitre the enemy’s main defences and discover whether Minga Creek was defended and whether it could be crossed by tanks. Near the objective two Japanese machine-guns opened fire, killing two Australians. Soon riflemen joined in and grenades were thrown. The Japanese withdrew but, as the enemy was on the alert, the patrol withdrew too. On the 7th Yarabos was occupied. The battalion was on the outskirts of Wewak, and the artillery was firing into Wirui Mission. Meanwhile, after a few minor clashes, the 2/8th Battalion on the right had taken Ranimboa, on 4th May, and later Numikim.
On the 7th a squadron of nine American Lightnings, sent out to strafe Wewak, attacked in error the Australian artillery positions – 44 25-pounders were in the area – the tanks and 19th Brigade headquarters at Cape Wom, the next headland to the west. The aircraft killed 11 and wounded 21, more than half of the losses falling on the artillery. The
2/1st Field Regiment lost 6 killed, its only fatal casualties in the whole campaign.
How the pilots mistook the two areas is beyond comprehension (wrote the 19th Brigade’s diarist). Apart from the fact of Raiboin Island directly off Wom, message dropping panels were prominently displayed, jeeps, bulldozers and trucks were being used extensively while there were in the vicinity of 2,000 troops in the area. American officers held an inquiry into the tragedy but the finding was not made known to this headquarters.
On the 7th–8th in a confused clash by night between Japanese and two parties of Australians Lieutenant Hibbard49 of the armoured squadron was mortally wounded.
It was now evident that the Japanese were abandoning their big base at Wewak and withdrawing their main forces over the Prince Alexander Mountains leaving strong rearguards to cover the exits from the Wewak area. To counter this the 2/11th Battalion and 2/7th Commando Squadron were sent on a wide encircling movement, while at the same time the 2/4th Battalion attacked Wewak Point.
On 8th May the 2/4th crossed Minga Creek in assault boats under covering fire from the artillery, mortars, tanks and machine-guns. There was some fire from bunkers beyond the creek but this was subdued by the tanks. That afternoon and next day the troops were fired on by Japanese guns from the direction of the Wewak airfield.
Cox issued orders on 9th May for the advance through Wewak. The axis of the advance would be the coast road; the front was a narrow one between the sea and swamps. The artillery – the 2/1st Field Regiment and the 2/2nd less one battery – would fire 2,700 rounds in support of the attack.
It was raining next morning as H-hour – 5.23 – approached. Major Cory, commanding the tanks, told Cox that it was too dark for the tank crews to see and Cox, with Martin’s approval, postponed H-hour until 6.10. The artillery opened fire at 5.55 and at 6.10 Captain Hawke’s50 company
began to advance; Captain W. J. S. Atkinson’s company on the left moved off ten minutes later. Both companies advanced from a start-line marked by masked torches 200 yards beyond the Minga; Hawke’s company, with two tanks, came under fire, including a few shells, about 6.30. Ten minutes later they had taken the knoll at the neck of Wewak Point. On the left Atkinson’s company, with Lieutenant Hall’s51 troop of tanks, came under heavy fire from Japanese ensconced in caves in the 100-foot escarpment of Wewak Point. These caves were dark and dirty shelters and were connected by tunnels up to 300 feet long. By 8 a.m. all Wewak Point had been taken.
At 12.15 Cox ordered Captain Smith’s company and Hawke’s to mop up while Captain Bohle’s52 held astride the road to the east. That afternoon a flame-thrower fired into a bunker apparently lit a dump of bombs which blew up. Smith’s company found several occupied caves and, since the Japanese would not surrender, merely picqueted them until engineers arrived and blew up the entrances, sealing the Japanese in. It was estimated that about 50 perished in the caves; by midnight 65 other dead had been counted and three 75-mm guns and two 20-mm had been captured. In a brilliant action the Australians, supported by tanks and more than 40 field guns, had lost only 2 killed and 17 wounded. Mopping up was continued next day, and no live Japanese remained on the point by midday. Finally it was estimated that from 180 to 200 Japanese had been killed.
On 11th May at Yarabos a patrol of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment under Lieutenant Stubbs53 was ambushed: three men were killed and Stubbs and all NCOs except Sergeant Leitch54 were wounded. Leitch reorganised the patrol, led a charge through the enemy’s lines, and broke through the Japanese. With their wounded, the men circled round through dense bush and came to a village where natives provided carriers and guides and led the patrol home. It was later found that the patrol had killed 21 Japanese.
On the 12th Atkinson’s company advanced to the eastern end of Wewak airfield without opposition; Smith’s company on the east reached the junction of the track to Wirui Mission.
Meanwhile, the 2/11th Battalion and the 2/7th Commando Squadron had been operating on the inland flank. The task of the 2/7th (Captain Lomas) was to capture Sauri villages where the enemy was considered to have established a strong rearguard covering this exit from Wewak. The squadron, 156 strong, began moving up the Waringe River on 8th May accompanied by artillery and mortar parties totalling 40, and 67 natives. In the advance up the Waringe that day and the next they killed five stragglers; on the 10th they drove an enemy group from a camp of six huts and reached the high ground along which they were to advance to the Sauri villages. Next day two troops advanced up a spur leading
towards Walanter and encountered a Japanese position on a razor-back. A troop attacked with flame-throwers and with close artillery support, and after a fight lasting two hours and a half took the position, killing 16 Japanese and losing 2 killed and 5 wounded. The squadron was now at the northern end of the north-south ridge along which lay the Sauri villages. Next day the enemy were driven from the next knoll by artillery and mortar fire. “Many souvenirs captured including 2 swords which we handed to the artillery and mortar personnel as a gesture of appreciation for the fine support given by them,” wrote the squadron diarist. On the 13th the squadron was held up by fire from the next knoll. Next day, after careful patrolling and accurate bombardment the enemy was driven from this knoll. Four machine-guns were captured.
A patrol to the north led by Lieutenant Shields55 found an old hospital able to hold over 400 patients and with much medical gear lying abandoned, and moving on down the Big Road made contact with the 2/11th Battalion. This route henceforward was used as the line of supply. On the 16th one troop found an enemy group dug in at Legamunga and attacked using a flame-thrower. After a fight lasting two hours and a half Lieutenant Greer’s56 section moved in and captured the position. Ten dead Japanese were found. This completed the clearing of the Sauri villages.
During this period the 2/11th Battalion was making its encircling move towards Wirui Mission. The battalion had a grim introduction to the new area. On 10th May it
moved out of Waringe base to the Big Road. ... The advance-guard (wrote the diarist) moved at 0700 and the main body 1 hour later. “B” Coy set off on a compass bearing to cut the Big Road at [a point a short distance west of Wirui Mission]. The march across was “bloody”. The course led through a sac sac swamp up to the knees and a wide detour had to be made to avoid deeper patches. Troops carrying packs, weapons and tools were hard pushed to keep going, and Sigs, Mortars, and MMGs carrying rolls of cable, wireless sets and weapons and ammunition found the going very heavy. At 1545 “B” Coy cut the Big Road. ... At 1630 the Bn was consolidating in a tight perimeter on very swampy ground.
While the men were digging in, three Japanese unwittingly approached the perimeter from the Wewak side and were killed.
On 11th May Captain Greenway’s company of the 2/11th set out to occupy the 770 Feature but encountered Japanese dug in on a steep-sided ridge and it was decided to try again next day after artillery preparation. This it did, but came against strong opposition higher up the spur from Japanese in a T-shaped position on a steep razor-back. That day a platoon of an attached company of the 2/8th (Major Diffey’s) advanced against the 710 Feature and discovered 9 or 10 huts which had evidently housed a headquarters and, farther on, killed four Japanese.
On the 13th Greenway’s company attacked at dawn and took the 620 Feature killing 9 Japanese and losing one man killed. Next day Diffey’s
company was sent towards the north slopes of 710, but the police boys who were guiding led them round the south where they came unexpectedly upon a strong enemy post and one man was killed and two, including Diffey, wounded.
On the 15th the 2/11th Battalion had its hardest fight so far in New Guinea. Captain Bayly’s57 company was sent against 710. The attack failed against this position which was on the top of a razor-back and held by some 40 Japanese. At 3.30, after artillery fire, the company went on, disregarding casualties, attacked again straight up the spur and took it. Promptly the Japanese counter-attacked, with much shouting, led by an officer armed with sword and shotgun, but they were beaten off, Bayly doing “a magnificent job”. Sixteen Japanese were killed and seven machine-guns taken; the 2/11th lost 4 killed and 18 wounded of whom three remained on duty. The evacuation of the wounded down the precipitous slopes was an immense labour and every available man was sent out. Despite the danger, torches were used to guide the stretcher bearers, but it was 4.30 next morning before the last wounded man had been brought in. In patrol actions elsewhere that day the battalion lost one killed (Lieutenant Chidgzey58) and 6 wounded. On the 13th contact had been made between the 2/4th and 2/11th.
In the meantime the landing east of Wewak had taken place. It will be recalled that for some weeks the 6th Division had had the support of a tiny flotilla consisting of the sloop Swan, the corvettes Dubbo and Colac, and five big motor launches. The senior officer was Lieut-Commander Dovers,59 the captain of Swan, and his flotilla, named Wewak Force, had been working in close cooperation with the division. The tasks of Wewak Force were varied. The corvettes searched for mines off the west coasts of Kairiru and Muschu and, later, off the east coasts and round the entrance to Wewak harbour. The motor launches took soundings in doubtful channels off Wewak and patrolled the coast westward to Muschu Strait and along the shores of Muschu and Kairiru. Swan, assisted where possible by the corvettes, bombarded selected targets. In the period to 3rd May Swan and the corvettes fired 1,440 rounds at targets ashore.
General Stevens, Group Captain Hancock and Lieut-Commander Dovers had prepared precise tables to govern air and naval support of the Dove Bay landing. It was late in the planning stage when the naval force of a size hitherto undreamt of became available – the cruisers Hobart and Newfoundland and the destroyers Arunta and Warramunga all under Commodore Farncomb.60
Unfortunately the naval planning staff did not visit or confer with Commander 6 Aust Div and approval of the program arranged with Senior Officer Wewak Force could not be obtained. On 7th May Captain Esdaile,61 RAN, Naval Officer in Charge New Guinea, called on the divisional commander and he carried the plans and full notes on the operation to the Commodore at Hollandia. On 8th May Commodore Farncomb called at Aitape on his way to join his flagship at Hollandia. There he had a discussion with the divisional commander during which the naval support plan suggested by division was approved in principle. ... No notification of any change was received but, when the naval order was delivered on D-1, it was found that the density of fire as distributed between the targets had been altered, and that the maximum fire was not being brought down on the landing beach at the times asked for. As time to make further representations was not available, Commander 6 Aust Div decided to proceed without further amendment to the naval fire plan.62
The task of Farida Force, as mentioned, was to secure a beach-head on Dove Bay, at “Red Beach”, with a view to cutting the Wewak–Forok road and preventing the enemy from moving east. In the first phase the beach-head was to be established, in the second the road was to be cut and patrolling begun. The assault troops were the 2/9th Commando Squadron on the right and the 2/10th on the left. Each was to advance 200 yards inland from the beach in four minutes after leaving it and form a perimeter on that line.
The naval vessels would bombard Red Beach for 55 minutes before H-hour and then lift to the area outside the perimeter. American aircraft from the reinforcement training centre at Nadzab were to bomb and strafe the beach area for 15 minutes ceasing 15 minutes before the landing, and No. 71 Wing RAAF was to be on call.
Off But on the evening of 10th May the assault troops were taken aboard Swan, Dubbo and Colac, in which they were to travel to the forming-up point. The convoy, including the four motor launches, the two landing craft armed with mortars, and the nine assault landing craft, sailed east during the night. At 6.45 a.m. on the 11th, when 10,000 yards off shore, the troops were loaded into the barges.
At 7.15 the naval vessels opened their bombardment, but low cloud with steady rain prevented the planned attack by American aircraft from Nadzab. However, Beauforts from Tadji bombed Brandi Plantation. The mortar barges moved in and lobbed 700 bombs into the area.
The first wave of four landing craft grounded about ten yards from the beach at 8.34 and the men waded ashore. The craft had reached the beach a little to the west of the position planned. There was sporadic enemy fire, some of it from 20-mm guns, but no effective opposition. Three minutes later the second wave, including Colonel Hennessy and his group, landed. The squadrons encountered only “very slight opposition” as they advanced and formed the perimeter. On the right were signs of recent departure. The beach-head was fully established and stores were being unloaded under some fire from both flanks by 10.24. Thus far two Japanese had been killed and one Australian wounded.
The squadrons sent out patrols, and a troop of the 2/10th encountered a strongly-held position on the eastern flank. Naval bombardment was called down and it drove out the Japanese – evidently about 50 men – who left a 20-mm gun and a large quantity of documents. At 5.50 a patrol cut the Wewak Road.
On the morning of the 12th Hennessy sent Captain Hewitt’s infantry company (of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion) to the Wewak Road–Forok Creek junction, gave the 2/10th Squadron the task of defending the perimeter, and sent the 2/9th towards the Mandi area. By the end of the day it had patrolled along the beach to a point north-west of Mandi without seeing any Japanese, but later found two stragglers farther to the west.
At 7.12 a.m. on the 13th Japanese mortared the area of “B” Troop of the 2/9th Squadron west of Mandi. The enemy was bombarded by eight bombers and by the 75-mm guns, whereupon “B” Troop attacked, took the track junction and exploited westward.
Hewitt’s company patrolled to Forok on the 12th. A gun being fired into their area was bombarded by Swan on the 15th and by aircraft on the 16th. Patrolling continued. On 20th May Farida Force was placed under Brigadier Martin’s command and ordered to be prepared to meet the leading troops of the 2/8th Battalion at Brandi, but not before the 22nd.
On 14th May, the 2/11th being heavily engaged in the foothills south of the Big Road, Martin had ordered the 2/4th to attack Wirui Mission, which was on a steep kunai-covered hill about 300 feet high dominating the airfield. Approaching from the east through tall kunai the leading company with a troop of tanks soon took the first objective – dominating ground about half way up the hill. Captain Smith’s company passed through and, with the tanks, whose crews estimated that they killed about 30 Japanese, reached the top. By nightfall the top and the eastern slopes were held but the Japanese were fighting back from bunkers on the north-west slopes.
Next day Smith’s company attacked these remaining bunkers. The leading section was halted by intense fire after several men had been hit. Private Kenna,63 in the supporting section, which was firing on the bunkers at a range of only 50 yards, stood up in the kunai grass in full view of the enemy and fired his Bren at one of the Japanese machine-gun posts. The Japanese machine-gunners returned his fire but failed to hit him. Kenna then said to Private Rau64 who was beside him that the Japanese “had a bead on him” and he asked for Rau’s rifle. Still standing, he fired four rifle shots and silenced the enemy post. He then took the Bren again and opened fire on another post about 70 yards away and silenced
it too. The remaining post was then knocked out by a tank; soon the 2/4th and 2/11th were in contact.65
About 40 Japanese were killed and perhaps 20 escaped in the fight for the mission. Large quantities of weapons, vehicles, generators, telephones and other equipment were found there. Possession of Wirui Mission gave complete control of the Wewak coastal plain.
Captured papers made it possible to make a fairly precise estimate of the forces immediately round Wewak: Kato Force, built round the 25th Airfield Battalion and about 300 strong, was holding from Sauri to Wirui Creek; Jinka Force, about 400 strong, was holding from Wirui Creek to the east, including Boram airfield, and south into the range as far as Passam; to the east was Aoyama Force, of unknown strength; the coastal plain to a depth of about 1,000 yards was not held in strength, and it was thought that there would be little opposition on the coast at least as far as Boram airfield. On 15th May the 2/8th Battalion, hitherto in reserve, was ordered to advance on Boram.
On the 16th, after Kreer and Boram had been pounded from the air and sea, the 2/8th launched a three-company attack with two troops of tanks in support. It was a complete success and by nightfall the leading company (Captain Rumley’s66) on the coast was in contact with a company which had taken Boram unopposed. The only casualties were six who were wounded when the enemy exploded electrically-detonated bombs set in the track. Next day the advance continued. Rumley’s company exploited to the mouth of Boram Creek where it encountered a strongly-held position.
Brigadier Martin next day ordered the battalion to capture Boram airfield and the foothills to the south, clear the coastal sector to the Brandi River and link with Hennessy’s force. This attack went in on the 20th in heavy rain. Three companies were forward and soon the men of the centre and right companies were waist deep in water, and all three companies were halted by heavy fire from bunkers. These were pinpointed and accurately shelled and mortared in the afternoon. The left company (Captain Dwyer67) then moved in to mop up and the other two (Captains Gately68 and Rumley) continued the advance. It was found that every bunker and weapon-pit had been destroyed by the bombardment, although the bunkers were roofed with three layers of coconut logs and 3 feet of spoil. Forty Japanese were killed, 28 of them by the bombardment. A patrol moving forward towards Farida Force on the 21st found 88 Indian prisoners, captured at Singapore. Next day Dwyer’s company occupied Cape Moem and, as planned, made contact with Farida Force.
On 25th May the 2/4th, which had been patrolling and mopping up, sent a patrol into Koigin and took it after a fight in which eight Japanese
were killed. That day Brigadier Martin was sent to hospital with malaria, and for the next month Lieut-Colonel Bishop, Stevens’ senior staff officer, temporarily commanded the brigade.
In this period the 2/11th had continued its arduous advance in the mountain area. On 17th May a party of native police patrolled to Klewalin and reported 12 Japanese in two huts there. Colonel Green ordered Captain Stoneham’s69 company to take this village, and next day it moved into the area, set an ambush with the help of the native police, and killed the 12 Japanese and took five machine-guns without loss – “a pleasant change from our other actions”, the battalion diarist commented. That night 6 or 7 Japanese attacked the company’s perimeter but were soon stopped.
On 20th May a patrol moved up the spur towards 770 and found it held in strength. This position and other pockets were probed in the next two days. Stoneham’s company attacked an enemy pocket near Klewalin on 22nd May. One platoon thrust along the track towards this position and another was sent round to the enemy’s rear. When Lance-Sergeant Fogarty’s70 section of the latter platoon was held up by a well-dug-in force Fogarty went forward and, standing, fired with his Owen gun and prevented the enemy from bringing down accurate fire. He dominated the enemy for 15 minutes, and then a flame-thrower arrived and the Japanese were overcome.
When a patrol of Major Royce’s71 company moved towards 770 on the 23rd it came under fire from a sniper; Lieutenant Anderson72 was killed and Private Host73 wounded; both were original members of this battalion. Most of the losses now being suffered by the Australians were at the hands of snipers sometimes firing from trees. On 24th May after an air and artillery bombardment Royce’s company occupied 770, except for one post whose occupants made off that night.
The 2/11th had its last hard fight in this area on the 27th when Green ordered an attack with the intention of removing an enemy pocket south of 710 and clearing the track between it and 770. In a first phase Bayly’s company, reinforced, was to clear 710, in a second Royce’s company to open the track from 770. The artillery fired 2,360 rounds during 20 minutes before and 10 minutes after the attack opened at 9 a.m. Despite this concentration the Japanese resisted resolutely and it was 11.50 before the last bunker was overcome and the two companies linked. Captain Abbott74 and one other were killed and six wounded; 15 Japanese dead were found.
In May the 2/11th lost 23 killed and 63 wounded, a grievously heavy loss. The casualty list reveals in some degree the extent to which the veterans who had served since 1939 were still in the front line and the extent to which this senior battalion had retained its regional character. Of the 85 killed or wounded 7 had three-figure numbers indicating that they almost certainly had enlisted in 1939, and 16 had numbers lower than 6,000. Three of the three-figure men (Lieutenant Chidgzey and Corporals McLennan75 and Donaldson76) were killed. Of the 85 all but 16 had enlisted in Western Australia; on 26th May all but two of the officers were West Australians, one of the two being the commanding officer.
In the last week of May the 2/11th was only 552 strong and had only 223 riflemen instead of 397. To fill out the depleted rifle companies the Headquarters Company was drawn upon and some of its platoons reduced to skeletons. The 2/4th lacked 161 riflemen, the 2/8th 130.
At this stage the shortage of reinforcements was acute throughout the whole of the First Army. On 3rd May General Sturdee had signalled General Blamey that the First Army was 10,000 below its war establishment: “Infantry some 4,500 down and sick wastage rising. Appreciate advice what policy to be followed maintain fighting efficiency especially in 6 Div and II Corps.” Next day Blamey replied that a policy direction had been given that all AIF reinforcements were to be retained on the mainland pending an estimation of the operational requirements of I Corps. These were now settled, and the 6th Division was to be brought to and maintained at full establishment, and in addition 1,800 AIF reinforcements were to be allotted to First Army.
The Aitape–Wewak campaign now seemed to be entering its final stage. By the end of May the 6th Division had driven most of what remained of the XVIII Japanese Army away from the coast, including its base at Wewak, and into the mountains, where it was enclosed between the 17th Brigade forward of Maprik to its west and the remainder of the division to its north.
While the 6th Division was advancing to Wewak the 8th Brigade, based on Madang, had continued the necessary task of patrolling the country east of the Sepik, now abandoned by all Japanese forces except some small but aggressive groups posted there to watch the XVIII Army’s eastern flank. Early in July 1944 the operations from Madang were controlled, as they had been since January, by the 5th Division (Major-General Ramsay), which then included the 4th, 8th and 15th Brigades. The 15th Brigade departed for Australia in July and the 4th Brigade in mid-August and, as mentioned earlier, in the big redeployment that began in September, the headquarters of the 5th Division went to New Britain and the 7th Brigade, which had replaced the 15th, to Bougainville, leaving
round Madang only the 8th Brigade, commanded since 18th August by Brigadier Fergusson.77 The brigade had already been serving on this coast for seven months.
For the last year of the war the main role of the force east of the Sepik was to hold the Hansa Bay area, to hold an outpost at Annanberg on a knoll enclosed in a bend of the Ramu River, about 60 air miles from the mouth, and to watch any Japanese who might remain in or enter the triangle enclosed by the lower Ramu, the lower Sepik, and the highlands. A large part of this task was performed by aircraft of No. 4 Squadron, which flew over the area almost daily at minimum altitudes reporting in detail the condition of the gardens and villages, the presence of natives, of canoes and so on. The task of patrolling the area was shared by the Australian battalions and detachments of the Papuan and the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalions, the Royal Papuan Constabulary, and Angau. The Japanese, on their side, had recruited and armed a considerable number of friendly natives.
As a rule the Australian garrison of Annanberg was built round two or three platoons, including at least one of New Guinea troops; and the Hansa Bay area was held by a company group of Australians and the greater part of a company of New Guinea troops. Patrolling was constant, arduous, widespread and sometimes eventful.
On 15th August 1944, for example, Warrant Officer Lega78 had led out nine men of the Royal Papuan Constabulary on a routine patrol. On the 25th near Bangri villages natives reported 10 Japanese camped higher up the Boki River. Lega’s party surprised and captured 3 and then led an attack on 8 more. All were killed. Lega, though wounded, led his party and their prisoners back to Madang, a three-day march.
Day after day, however, the diary of the 5th Division in this period recorded that there was “nothing to report”. In June, July, August and September patrols had been along the coast as far as the Sepik mouth without finding any Japanese. In mid-October the 35th Battalion, which was then maintaining the forward company group at Hansa Bay sent out strong patrols totalling 30 Australians and 23 natives, with 8 pigeons to carry messages, to the Sepik mouth and Wangan. They found no Japanese.
In November, however, small forces of Japanese moved out from bases about Singarin on the Sepik west of the Watam Lagoon and established themselves at Watam and Wangan and at Bosman near the Ramu. The establishment of a post at Bosman was facilitated by developing canoe passages leading to the Ramu from the west.
In that month the 4th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Neville79) was forward and its plan was to hold from Marangis on the coast along the line of the lower Ramu, and patrol forward. A strong patrol drawn from the 4th Battalion and the attached New Guinea company (Captain Keft80) probed to Watam and Wangan on 4th December but were attacked by 80 or more Japanese. The Australians had the better of the encounter but withdrew and established a strong position at Marangis. Heavy air strikes were delivered at Watam and Wangan and soon 130 native refugees from that area arrived in the Australian positions and reported on the enemy’s numbers and dispositions. It seemed that there were some 90 Japanese round Watam and Wangan and 30 round Bosman. Henceforward, for several months the 8th Brigade was keen to go out and hit the Japanese, but from time to time was restrained by orders from First Army, which evidently did not wish the brigade to become committed to even moderately heavy operations, and was willing that the area from the Sepik to the Ramu should be a no-man’s land. Thus, late in December, First Army ordered that all troops must be withdrawn east of the Ramu, though patrols might go to Marangis. When the 30th Battalion relieved the 4th early in February Lieut-Colonel W. N. Parry-Okeden of the 30th had in the forward area his tactical headquarters, one company of the 30th, one company of the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion, one platoon of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (at Annanberg with a platoon of the NGIB) and other detachments. The remainder of the forward battalion, as hitherto, was at Madang.
Parry-Okeden obtained permission to carry out a series of raids on the Japanese at Wangan, Watam and Bosman. A company of the 30th occupied Bosman village on 7th January, the Japanese offering little opposition. After a few days, however, the withdrawal of this outpost was ordered. Barges sent to Bosman to remove the company were attacked by 30 to 40 well-armed Japanese, who wounded three including two of the Americans who were manning the barges. The company was embarked and brought out, under spasmodic fire.
About 30 Japanese on 19th January attacked Marangis 1 but were driven off leaving eight dead. That day a patrol of the New Guinea Battalion, 9 strong, under Sergeant McDowall81 surprised 24 Japanese preparing food at Bosman, killed all but two of them, and captured 21 rifles and a machine-gun. Only one native soldier was wounded. Thus,
in this one encounter, probably one-fifth of the Japanese in the whole area were killed.
Nevertheless small enemy patrols continued to attack the Australian outpost at Marangis 1, and it was decided to attack the enemy’s position at the junction of the coastal track and the track to Wangan. This position was struck from the air, and fired into with a mortar and machine-guns mounted on a trawler. The Japanese made off.
The 30th Battalion now obtained permission to drive the enemy from Wangan and Watam, and on 7th February the forward company (Captain Simpson82) occupied the track junction and that day and the next sent patrols towards Wangan and Watam. These encountered well-organised positions, and bombardments by aircraft and two armed trawlers were arranged. On the 11th, however, Parry-Okeden received orders originating with First Army not to patrol forward from Marangis, and to withdraw patrols from Bosman. It was then too late to stop patrols of the New Guinea Battalion that had set out for Bosman and Mennem and one of these killed 11 Japanese near Mennem.
Parry-Okeden made it clear in his report that he did not approve of the orders from above.
The CO 30 Bn was forced to adopt a passive role (he wrote) and forfeit ground which was most vital to the defence of the Hansa Bay area, namely Bosman area. This policy allows the enemy freedom of movement to form bases in the Mennem area and, seizing suitable positions, to cross the Ramu and obtain a springboard into Hansa Bay and Bogia.
During its two months in the forward area the companies of the 30th and the attached New Guinea troops killed 91 Japanese and 12 of their armed natives; only one Australian soldier and two New Guinea soldiers were killed.
In this period the Annanberg force made only occasional contacts with the enemy, of whom there appeared to be about 200 at various posts along the Keram River, with headquarters about 30 miles from Annanberg in a direct line. The natives along the Keram were cooperating with the Japanese, as they showed by drumming warning signals from village to village whenever an Australian patrol crossed the Ramu. The Australian troops were flown in and out in flying-boats which landed on Lake Vrabu, and the garrison of this remote little fortress was mainly supplied by air.
In March, April and the first half of May the 35th Battalion was the forward unit. Late in March the outposts on the Ramu were withdrawn to Bunum and Seven because the weather was making it difficult to supply posts on the river. In mid-May the 4th Battalion relieved the 35th and, as will be seen later, the 4th remained forward until the cease fire.