Chapter 15: Tazaki and Shiburangu
SHORTAGES of shipping and aircraft and, in the ranges, the lack of an airfield for large air transports, had now been overcome, and the infantry were receiving increasingly strong support. On Hayfield, Douglas transports were landing heavy ammunition, and modest numbers of jeeps, graders, bulldozers and guns. Where formerly the heaviest weapons had been two 4.2-inch mortars with a limited supply of bombs, there were now 75-mm guns and 25-pounders were coming. Round Wewak, too, but for other reasons, artillery support was now more powerful. In that area observation for artillery fire was better than hitherto and also the opposition was more concentrated. Consequently the artillery was massed about Cape Worn, where eventually there were two field regiments plus two 155-mm and four 75-mm guns, a formidable force to concentrate on one fairly small enemy position after another.
A new shortage, however, now appeared. By 17th June only 27 aircraft loads of bombs remained at the Aitape airfields. A total of 194 Japanese bombs found at But and Dagua were carried to Aitape in barges, and about 146 tons of these were dropped on their former owners, but many failed to explode. General Stevens appealed to General Sturdee and he to General Blamey. As an outcome 780 bombs reached Aitape on 24th June and another consignment three days later. (That day, however, Stevens was informed that no further support could be given by the American Replacement Training Centre at Nadzab because it was moving north.) A small consignment of bombs arrived at Aitape on 4th July, but even so there were then only enough for 130 sorties, and air support had to be rationed. On 9th July, however, enough for 3,000 sorties arrived and thereafter No. 71 Wing could meet all demands.
In this final phase the infantry needed all the support they could be given. They were now hard against the enemy’s bases, which were manned by troops who were relatively well fed, were well led, were fighting from elaborate defences, and were resolved to dispute possession of every tactically-important feature protecting the approaches to their remaining food-producing areas and the fortress in which they had been ordered to make their last stand.
In the Prince Alexander Mountains at the beginning of June the Japanese had been practically cleared from the west bank of the Parchi River as far south as the Waigakum area. Their main forces were believed to be along the tracks west of the Yamil villages, and in the Malabasakum Hamlets and about Ulupu. On the Australian side the 2/5th Battalion had now relieved the 2/7th, and its immediate task was to secure the line Solongan–Kulauru Mission. The objective of the 2/6th Battalion on the left was Yamil. Hayfield was garrisoned by the battery of the 2/1st
Anti-Tank Regiment working as infantry: these men, as mentioned, were also patrolling far to the south and east.
The defences now facing the brigade were more elaborate than those hitherto encountered. The 2/5th, whose headquarters were established at Kalabu, met strong opposition. There were evidently from 200 to 300 Japanese in the Ulupu–Yamil area with outposts forward. Lieut-Colonel Buttrose ordered Major A. C. Bennett’s company to take Yamil 3, using a line of approach to the north, Captain Geer’s to clear Malabasakum Hamlets and Ulupu and mop up pockets to the south, Captain Cameron’s to move along the main Yamil Road and be prepared to take Yamil landing ground; Captain G. McK. Fry’s was in reserve with the probable future role of advancing along the main road and taking Ulebilum. The battalion now had the support of two 4.2-inch mortars and two 75-mm guns of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment.
On 2nd June Geer began patrolling southward into an area where the enemy occupied many villages and gardens. In the centre “C” Company of the 2/7th was still forward at the beginning of June and on the 2nd it made a two-platoon attack on a strongly-held knoll named “Newton’s Knoll”, after Lieutenant T. E. Newton, about half way between Kalabu and Ulebilum, and took it at a second attempt killing seven Japanese. Here Cameron of the 2/5th took over next day and patrolled widely, pinpointing three enemy positions across his line of advance and manned apparently by about 75 Japanese. On the left Bennett’s company, by vigorous patrolling, forced the enemy to withdraw from well-sited positions, and by 9th June held a position whence Yamil landing ground could be observed and the company on Newton’s Knoll could be supported by flanking fire. A captured map showed the enemy’s main line of resistance to run through Yamil 3–Yuman–Palketia–Malabasakum. The defenders of Palketia were driven out by mortar fire and air bombardment. On 12th June a platoon of Bennett’s company took a position defending Yamil 3 and made contact with the 2/6th advancing on Yamil 1. Next day, using flame-throwers for the first time, it took Yamil 3. Fry’s company, supported by mortar and artillery fire, forced the enemy out of Yuman, killing thirteen and having no casualties itself.1 It was now evident that the Japanese
were concentrating in Ulupu, and it was attacked by 24 aircraft. An enemy group of 50 to 60 was dug in along “Kunai Spur” north of Ulupu which the enemy was evidently determined to hold, being vital ground in the defence of Ulupu. It was harassed by artillery and mortar fire and attacked from the air.
Meanwhile the 2/6th had been fighting its way to Yamil, which was entered unopposed on 10th June after some effective air strikes and much bombardment. The defences were strong but it appeared that the Australian move from the north instead of the west had caught the enemy unprepared. Patrols advanced to the emergency landing ground, which was soon taken. The ground was quickly cleared and on 21st June a light aircraft landed and the removal of casualties by air began.
The Japanese continued to defend Kunai Spur against the 2/5th with determination despite heavy bombardment. On 24th June bombardment and a flanking move forced the enemy out of Yamil 4, but Kunai Spur was still held. After more bombardment a reinforced platoon attacked the spur but was repulsed after killing 11 Japanese, losing 3 killed and 3
wounded. The spur was then bombed by 34 aircraft, but this did not dislodge the defenders.
The gunners of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment patrolling as infantry on the southern flank were still very active. On 3rd June, for example, Captain Johnson sent out a fighting patrol of twenty-five under Lieutenant Savage2 against Tuwaigum 2 where nine Japanese were reported. The patrol reached their start-line near the village undetected and attacked. The main position was taken but as a party moved out to count the dead and collect Intelligence material snipers opened fire from within and without the village killing Gunner Waterman3 and wounding Sergeant Duncan4 (who carried on) and Gunner King.5 Bombardier Reed was killed while trying to bring in Waterman’s body, and later Gunner Perel6 was killed while trying to bring in a body. Another attack was made. Bombardier Arnold7 under heavy fire recovered the bodies of Waterman and Perel and when the patrol withdrew they took these with them. In all 4 Australians died and 2 were wounded. There were not 9 but 20 to 25 Japanese in the village of whom at least 13 were killed. The attack on Tuwaigum was part of a larger operation in which a total of 52 artillerymen were involved. One group, under Johnson, attacked Mikau 2 the same day, killing 7 Japanese.
In this period Captain G. C. O’Donnell of Angau and a party of natives carried out a particularly deep patrol. He left Bana on 22nd June and travelled by way of Amam and Nilu to a point on the Screw River about three hours from Maprik, and returned by the Aramap River to Walum, where he arrived on 29th June, with much information about the enemy’s deployment, the tracks, the effect of air attack, and the attitude of the natives.
As mentioned earlier General Blamey planned to give an increasingly important role to the native battalions as the operations in the New Guinea territories developed. Accordingly the 2nd New Guinea Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Murchison) was sent forward to Aitape, and it joined the 17th Brigade on 25th June. It immediately began to patrol to the south where Brigadier Moten gave it the task of destroying the remnants of the 41st Japanese Division as far south as Kwimbu, Mikau and Kunjinge. By the end of the month the native soldiers had killed 25 Japanese, having had only 3 of their own men wounded, and were patrolling south and east from Mikau and Winingi.
From 25th to 28th June General Stevens visited the inland sector and, after discussions with Brigadier Moten, instructed him to make a plan for the capture of Kiarivu with a force of not more than one battalion group.
At the beginning of July the 2/5th Battalion was meeting the stiffest resistance yet encountered in the ranges. On 3rd July, however, the Japanese abandoned Kunai Spur, where they had withstood bombardment for nearly three weeks. A platoon attack on Ulupu, however, on 4th July was repulsed. Next day a company, under cover of artillery and mortar fire, occupied Ulupu but the Japanese still held strong positions in the area; in several actions on the 4th 17 Japanese were killed.
On 8th July an attack – the decisive attack of this phase – was launched on a strongly-held knoll at the northern end of the Ulupu area. The knoll was bombarded by artillery and mortars and then by twenty-two aircraft. These employed a device that was now proving most effective: they dropped their bombs and then made dummy runs while the infantry moved in. The attack, by two platoons, succeeded. Twenty-eight Japanese were killed; one Australian was killed and four wounded, including the two platoon commanders, Lieutenants McDonald8 and Newton9 who had joined from the Royal Military College only three weeks before. Captain H. Busby, the medical officer, and Lieutenants Pitts,10 the Intelligence officer, were also wounded that day. After the fight it was evident that the enemy had been ordered to hold on at all costs. They had dug an elaborate position with many pill-boxes and weapon-pits, connected by large tunnels, and had fought on until only two or three survived.
A group of about twenty-five Japanese was driven out of Ulum on 9th July by bombardment. The enemy’s defence system had now been broken and the patrols of the 2/5th rapidly moved forward about 2,000 yards with only minor skirmishes to Kulauru Mission, which was occupied on 11th July, and beyond.
On the 12th, however, Cameron’s company had a stiff fight lasting six hours during which six Japanese were killed. Thereafter the enemy split up into small parties and soon all known positions in the Ulupu area were found to have been abandoned. Ilipem was occupied on the 18th.11
The southward sweep of the 2nd New Guinea Battalion had achieved swift success, although it had involved the native troops in harder fighting
than was generally allotted to them, and had caused them heavier loss than the native troops were suffering on Bougainville, for example. In the Prince Alexanders, however, the native battalion was employed as a complete unit, whereas elsewhere such battalions had been employed as pools from which companies or platoons might be drawn for attachment to Australian formations or units. On 3rd July Lieutenant McDowall’s platoon took Kongambe, killing six Japanese; one native soldier was killed and McDowall wounded. Another platoon took Kwandaning, killing eight and capturing documents and machine-guns; again a native soldier was killed. Captain R. S. Garland’s company took Naila, killing sixteen; but three native soldiers were killed and Lieutenant Roche12 and four men were wounded. In the day thirty-two Japanese were killed. The destruction of the Japanese on the fringes of the main force was being carried out with grim efficiency. That day Warrant-Officer Healy13 of Angau stated that in recent patrols round Wihun in the north his native scouts had reported having killed 60 Japanese, and that he considered these claims reliable.
Captured documents showed that the next strong resistance would be met on a line Kaboibus–Ahegulim–Gwalip. Brigadier Moten’s force was now poised for a big move deep into the enemy’s area. On 12th July Moten had held a conference at Maprik attended by all commanding officers, his own staff, and representatives from divisional headquarters, No. 71 Wing RAAF, Air Maintenance, and Angau. Moten explained that, because of the strong resistance of an enemy fighting from well-prepared defences, the advance of the 2/5th and 2/6th had been slowed down. He proposed to speed up the advance. First, the 2nd New Guinea Battalion, moving on a wide front, would converge on the Gwalip villages and secure them by 30th July. The 2/7th Battalion would be flown from Aitape, where it had been resting since 11th June, to Hayfield by the same date and would move into Gwalip whence it would advance by a circuitous route South-east of Gwalip and then strike north and take Kiarivu airfield and Karapia some ten miles behind the Japanese forward positions along the Yoibi River. The 2/7th would then establish a base round Karapia and Kiarivu, where stores and heavy weapons would be dropped from the air, and drive westward against the Japanese rear. Meanwhile the 2/5th and 2/6th would press on eastward, the 2/5th clearing the enemy from the area west of the Atilem River and the 2/6th taking Kaboibus. The 2nd Battery of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment would patrol south and South-east from a base at Kunjinge Mission. After securing Gwalip the New Guinea Battalion was to turn north, attack the southern flank of the enemy’s defences in the Mount Irup area and prevent any withdrawal south towards the Sepik. Native patrols were to close the escape routes leading north into the Torricellis.
On 8th July Colonel Murchison had moved his advanced headquarters forward to Kwimbu. Garland’s company took Gisanambu on the 12th, killing ten. Here Garland tied inflammable material to a native spear, lit it, ran forward and threw it into the roof of a hut within which was a Japanese post. The hut was burnt down. At Dunbit on the same day Lieutenant Harris’14 platoon was repulsed, Harris and a native soldier being killed. In the day 27 Japanese were killed. Captain Gay’s15 company to the north attacked Aoniaru with two platoons on the 18th and again on the 19th but could not break into the well-dug and well-manned defences. The battalion’s headquarters was advanced to the Gwalip area on the 22nd; that day Gay’s company made its third attack on Aoniaru, gaining part of the area but not all; the last Japanese were driven out after an air attack on the 24th. The whole battalion was then concentrated about Gwalip. By 27th July Sigora was taken.
On 30th July the battalion had its largest engagement so far when Gay’s company was launched against Ulama where the Japanese were well entrenched on a timbered knoll. After an air strike which razed the trees and, it was discovered later, killed 21 Japanese, the company followed on and had reached the top when fire from a surviving post killed Sergeant Smith.16 Smith’s platoon commander, Lieutenant Stewart,17 immediately crawled forward and threw a grenade at the machine-gunners, who then swung their gun round and engaged him. He threw two more grenades and silenced the gun. The advance was continued, but again came under fire which wounded Lieutenant Reed-Hankey,18 who fell in the open. Stewart went forward under fire and carried Reed-Hankey to a bomb crater where he tried to dress the wound. Finding the field dressing insufficient, Stewart carried the wounded man back to a sheltered position where medical aid was available, then returned to the attack and carried on until the whole knoll had been secured. Sixteen Japanese were killed in the attack; others withdrew towards Suaui. By 2nd August Murchison had completed his task of securing a base for the 2/7th in the Sigora area.
Meanwhile the 2/5th had been pressing on supported by heavy air strikes and by 1st August had taken Gwenik, 1,000 yards South-west of Kaboibus, after the village had been thrice bombed by from 18 to 30 aircraft and harassed by artillery and mortars. The battalion now had the support of four 25-pounders of the 2/2nd Field Regiment with gun positions at Ulebilum. On 2nd August Bennett’s company of the 2/5th advancing along the Kaboibus ridge occupied the Kaboibus villages, surprisingly against only minor opposition; about 100 weapon-pits were found abandoned.
Captain Johnson’s men of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment had one of their hardest-fought actions on 28th July when they attacked Jama only seven miles from the Sepik. Johnson himself led the patrol of 27, including Lieutenant Storrie19 as second-in-command Johnson stealthily reconnoitred and found that there were about 20 Japanese in the village and others could be heard about 50 yards away. The main position was known to contain three covered bunkers, and a pallisade surrounded it. The attackers formed up without being detected and charged the village with weapons blazing.
Complete surprise was obtained (reported Johnson afterwards) and at least half of the enemy killed died in the first rush. Volume of fire was considerably reduced while first one section and then the other broke their way through the fence. In this interval three MG opened fire. ... The first line of trenches was seized and the occupants killed. An advance up the left flank along the crawl trenches cleared the left. ... The right flank then moved forward and secured all but one bunker position on the right. The second line of trenches was then grenaded and occupied across the front of the position. The failure to overrun the whole position was due to the enemy holding the rear line of trenches which included three bunkers and a position in the centre ... all with overhead cover.
The attackers began to run out of ammunition and Johnson, who had done “devastating work” with a Bren, thinned them out and eventually withdrew. They had lost four killed, including Storrie, and two wounded, all of whom were carried back; 32 Japanese dead were counted.
On the left the 2/6th Battalion probed forward during July, sending out, as a rule, five or six patrols each day. On 10th July it had established a patrol base from which to begin operations in the Kaboibus area. The heaviest clash in July was at Kubalak on the left where, on the 14th, a patrol under Lieutenant Johnson20 attacked some 20 Japanese but was repulsed, losing 3 killed and 2 wounded. By 18th July the battalion had cleared the Ulunkohoitu Ridge. In July the battalion lost 4 killed and 14 wounded; 4 native auxiliaries were killed and 3 wounded; the natives had killed 134 Japanese and the Australians 68.
In response to these thrusts the Japanese reinforced the area with troops from both north and south. The total strength of the 20th and 41st Divisions was now thought to be from 1,200 to 1,600, but actually was far more; the Japanese infantry strength in the ranges was in fact more than twice the Australian. Some of the Australian units, on the other hand, had been rested from time to time, and they had the support of bombers and field guns.
Two companies of the 2/5th were now advancing on Ahegulim and Malabeim respectively. On 4th August, with the support of 25-pounders which fired 276 rounds, Geer’s company drove a force of 15 to 20 Japanese out of Ahegulim. On the 7th Cameron’s company overcame a force of 20 to 30 round Malabeim after a similar bombardment. East and south
of these positions the forward companies disposed of some small groups and patrolled to the Atilem River without opposition. For the next few days the artillery and mortars harassed enemy positions on Mount Irup. In the past two months the battalion had broken through three strongly-defended north-south defensive lines, killed 370 Japanese and taken 11 prisoners; its own losses had been 23 killed and 76 wounded.
At the end of July the 2/6th Battalion had begun moving out to Wewak for a rest having been in contact with the enemy for five months.
During this period their advance had been generally across a series of mountain ridges densely covered with jungle and big timber. Each ridge was intersected by deep gorges dropping some 1,000 feet into the mountain streams. The fatigue of movement was immense, the problems of supply heart-breaking; it was jungle fighting at its worst.21
They had fought on devotedly, but in July, when the men of this battalion learned that all with five years’ service, two of them being overseas, might choose to be discharged from the army, out of 176 officers and men in that category only five said that they would prefer to remain. This was probably largely a result of the feeling that they were in a backwater of the war. To have sent out all the veterans who were entitled to take their discharge in one group would have greatly disorganised this and other battalions and, in fact, the “five-and-two’s” were discharged a few at a time. Thus from the 2/7th Battalion, now going into action again, were sent, as a first batch, one officer, 7 NCOs and 5 privates.
After a two-day march from Ulebilum through Gwalip to Sigora, the 2/7th set out on its wide movement against Kiarivu on 6th August, preceded the previous day by one of its companies and Captain Garland’s company of the 2nd New Guinea Battalion which was included in Colonel Parbury’s command for this operation. In three days of hard marching across undulating kunai grasslands the 2/7th met only isolated parties of Japanese, and, at 6.30 on 8th August, secured Kiarivu emergency landing ground. By 9th August Karapia and the northern end of Kiarivu were secured and two 75-mm guns had been dropped. On the 13th the first light aircraft landed and began the removal of sick and wounded. The encircling move had succeeded brilliantly.
In this phase the New Guinea Battalion to the south was taking unusually large numbers of prisoners. On 3rd August, for example, seven surrendered in three groups. At that stage the battalion had taken 11 prisoners, killed 309, and had lost 14 of its own men killed. On 10th August a captain and 12 men surrendered. These surrenders were partly the result of a special effort: supplies of surrender pamphlets were obtained and a local adaptation of the pamphlet in general use was written by the translator at brigade headquarters, who included details supplied by the New Guinea Battalion. These papers were given to local natives to leave
in Japanese-occupied villages, and the battalion’s deep patrols put them on Japanese tracks. In addition prisoners were used
to sing out to comrades urging them to surrender. All PW state that because of continued harassing from the air and the unit’s aggressive tactics plus the shortage of food and ammunition they decided to surrender. All had leaflets ... when taken.22
In these final days the New Guinea Battalion had some hard fighting, however. When Captain E. R. Reeve’s company was approaching Miyam-boara a prisoner who, like many others, having once taken the drastic step and given himself up was anxious to please his captors, explained that when attacked from the air the Japanese at Miyamboara would withdraw to gardens near by. Thereupon three aircraft bombed the enemy’s defences and then six made dummy runs while the native troops moved in.
Lieutenant Hodge’s23 platoon occupied a knoll near Mananingi and patrolled to the village where they were fired on. As they advanced 20 Japanese emerged from behind the huts and charged firing from the hip. Caught by surprise three native troops were wounded, two mortally. The patrol withdrew. That day in another area, however, a captain and 16 men, all with pamphlets, surrendered.
On the 12th August 62 rounds of artillery fire and 114 mortar bombs were landed into Mananingi and the Japanese fled in all directions; on the 13th, after an air attack, it was found to be abandoned. Two parties of prisoners totalling six surrendered that day. The forward troops now knew that the end of the fighting was near.
The intermittent references to the work of Angau officers and the natives whom they organised have given only an incomplete picture of their role. By this time cooperation between Angau and the army formations which it served and which served it was smooth and efficient. One task of the division was to help Angau (and AIB) to gain Intelligence, establish bases and protect the local people; for their part the Angau officers of the District Services Branch had to give the divisional commander the benefit of their knowledge of the district, work with the forward troops on reconnaissance, collect information from the natives, and administer justice and relief.
Throughout the campaign a large part of the fighting force had been wholly or partly dependent on native carriers. Even where supply dropping was possible carriers were needed to take supplies farther forward and take parachutes back to a base. During the operations of the 17th Brigade an Angau network was spread deep into enemy territory, under the leadership of the Assistant District Officer, Captain Cole, and, under him, Captain C. M. O’Loghlen, Lieutenants Monk,24 Graham,25 Kaad,26 and Fienberg. On the coast a similar task was done by Captain Searson,27
Lieutenants Gow28 and Birrell and Warrant Officer Godwin. These were the men chiefly responsible for the events which led to frequent references in Japanese reports to the “rebellion” of natives behind their lines.
Late in July General Mano had established his headquarters at Winge with the main force at Gwalip. While at Winge some 80 Australian troops attacked. Mano was having a meal and was undressed at the time. He said after the war that if the attack had been maintained he probably would have been caught. When the Australians attacked Gwalip their patrols were between Mano’s headquarters and his front line. Mano was “really surprised at the tenacity with which the Australian troops fought” in the attacks on Winge.29
On 25th July General Adachi issued orders for the “last stand” round Numbogua, about 20 miles south of Hayfield. Retreat to the Sepik had been considered and rejected, but at the same time, as mentioned, Yoshiwara had been put in general command there with orders to carry on guerilla warfare, and thus a way was being kept open to the Sepik.
One after another “last-stand” position had been defined in complex, ambiguous and emotional orders – and then lost to the Australians. The next orders defined yet another “last stand”. A great part of most XVIII Army orders was taken up with reiteration of the disabilities the army suffered and generalisations about tactics and supply. Intentions and methods were not clearly defined.
In a post-mortem examination of the Australian tactics in the final months of the war the staff of the XVIII Army expressed the opinion that their enemy had been over-cautious. If the 17th Brigade, having thrust swiftly into the Gwalip area, at the same time had sent native troops into the Japanese rear areas the 41st Division would have been cut off from its supplies. “If the enemy had employed the natives to guide him through our vast and weakly-manned front line and established his positions behind our lines disrupting our communications ... and then attacked our forward positions he would have easily overrun our defences. It was unbelievable that the enemy failed to apply these tactics when it was tried over and over again in the Buna and Salamaua areas by the Australian Army with great success. ... Had the enemy, after penetrating the Yangori sector in August, intercepted our supply route and utilised the goodwill of the natives to the fullest extent, our force would have retreated without a fight. ... When, after the termination of hostilities, we were marched through the enemy lines we were amazed at the quantity of his marvellous mechanised equipment and material and could not help being proud of our forces fighting so valiantly against such a powerful enemy.”
Meanwhile there had been severe fighting south from Wewak. On 28th May General Stevens had issued orders to Colonel Bishop of the 19th Brigade for the capture of Mount Tazaki and Mount Shiburangu. The brigade would occupy a defensive position about Koigin and patrol southward and, provided it did not involve serious fighting, advance its forward elements on to Mount Tazaki. It would then clear the track through the 770 Feature and occupy high ground to ensure control of that track. Next it would clear the area between Wewak and Sauri, and be prepared to move south via Sauri to capture Mount Shiburangu.
The approaches to both Tazaki and Shiburangu were along narrow steep-sided spurs with knolls at intervals along the spurs. As elsewhere the Japanese were well dug in on each knoll and each group of defenders was generally armed with heavy machine-guns, mainly weapons taken
from damaged aircraft. Defending the Sauri and Shiburangu routes were the 25th Airfield Battalion, totalling about 200, and the III/66th Battalion from 100 to 150 strong; from Koigin to Mount Tazaki were the 21st Airfield Battalion and other units totalling about 400. Indeed if one Australian battalion was sent against each objective it would face a force of about equal strength in infantry.
In preparation for the new operation Bishop relieved some of the weary and depleted units then forward. A company of the 2/8th Battalion had relieved the 2/7th Commando Squadron at Sauri; the 2/8th Battalion plus gunners of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, acting as infantry, relieved the 2/11th, which went into reserve. At first the 16th Brigade was made responsible for the area west of the Big Road and east of a north-south line through Boram, but it was found that the men of this brigade were not yet fit for such a task, and Stevens decided that the 19th Brigade must take over the whole area from Wewak to Mandi. This necessitated deploying in the forward area the three battalions of the brigade, and the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment, now to be attached again to the brigade; there was no brigade reserve.
Reinforcements for the Wewak area would soon be on the way, however. In June General Sturdee had ordered the 8th Brigade, in the Madang area, to leave one battalion to carry on the task of patrolling the area east of the Sepik and move the rest of its strength – principally the 30th and 35th Battalions, led by Lieut-Colonels Parry-Okeden and Armstrong30 respectively – to Wewak where it was intended that the 8th Brigade would help to defend that base while other brigades followed the Japanese withdrawal into the mountains and ultimately linked with the 17th.
Before it departed from the forward area the 2/3rd Battalion had successfully attacked Hill 910, dominating the track from Boram airfield to Koigin. Captain McCrackan’s31 company advanced on this feature on 1st June. Artillery fire failed to dislodge the defenders who were in strong bunkers. Next day, with the support of devastating bombardments, the company made two more attacks, the second of which was completely successful. Of the 30 Japanese dead, 18 had been killed by the artillery, which during the day fired 3,500 rounds. At Hill 910 the only Australian casualty was McCrackan, who was wounded but carried on until the position had been taken.
In the first half of June the 2/10th Commando Squadron in the Mandi area, about two miles east of Brandi Plantation, was also still in close contact with a resolute and enterprising enemy. The Japanese had excellent observation posts overlooking Mandi and were using them to direct artillery and mortar fire. On 1st June the squadron had only 11 officers and 120 men, instead of 17 and 243; for a full squadron attack only about 70 fighting men were available. Thus the need for frequent patrols
to maintain the initiative in the hills to the south made heavy demands on the men’s endurance. On 5th June a squadron attack was made on a bunker position at a junction about 1,000 yards south of the perimeter. When the attackers encountered sharp fire they were withdrawn 200 yards while the artillery observer, Lieutenant Wyburn32 of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, ranged 16 guns of the 2/2nd Field Regiment at Boram and then poured 800 rounds into the position in less than ten minutes. The result was devastating. Out of 25 bunkers 17 were totally destroyed. It was impossible to find and count all the dead but they were estimated at about 32. On 14th June the squadron was relieved by a company of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion.
In this period both the 2/8th and 2/4th Battalions patrolled on a wide front across the approaches to Shiburangu and Tazaki. For example on 6th June a patrol of the 2/8th led by Lieutenant Combes33 encountered from five to seven Japanese south from Sauri and a brisk engagement took place.
When the patrol contacted the enemy (wrote the battalion’s diarist) Lieutenant Combes immediately got in touch with his company commander by [telephone]. During the conversation Lieutenant Combes noticed a Jap sneaking up the track towards him armed with a rifle and carrying grenades. Still continuing the conversation Lieutenant Combes gave the Jap a burst from his Owen gun which he worked with one hand and killed the Jap.
In the ensuing action Combes and two others were wounded, but Combes remained on duty. Five Japanese were killed.
By 10th June this patrolling had provided enough information to enable Bishop to give detailed orders to the units. The ruggedness of the country made the use of tanks impossible. The 2/8th was ordered to take Hills 1 and 2, and then Mount Shiburangu, to clear the spur from it to Sauri, and link with the 2/4th when that battalion had taken Mount Tazaki and the high ground to the west of it. The 2/11th, still weak – it was, for example, 16 officers short – was to protect the area from Boram airfield to Cape Moem, the 2/3rd Machine Gun to protect Brandi Plantation and Mandi and patrol vigorously to ensure against infiltration. These tasks to the rear were not sinecures since the enemy, despite his hopeless situation, was sending out raiders over a wide front; and the Australians made continual patrols into the enemy’s area.
On 11th June the 2/8th had made a two-company attack on Hill 1. Eighteen Beauforts bombed the enemy and the artillery fired 2,200 rounds. Rumley’s and Gately’s companies took their objectives losing 2 killed and 9 wounded; also 2 officers were wounded when one of the Australian shells burst in a tree. Thirty-three Japanese were killed. Patrolling and information from natives indicated that about 100 Japanese defended Hill 2 beyond which lay Shiburangu itself.
At 8 a.m. on 16th June aircraft struck both Hill 2 and Shiburangu and then the artillery began a program in which 3,000 rounds were fired. One company began to advance on Hill 2 at 9.30. Warrant-Officer Fisk’s34 platoon, which was forward, met heavy fire from snipers on both flanks and machine-gun fire from the hills and lost one man killed and one wounded. It withdrew to the cover of the spur and moved to outflank the enemy on the left. Meanwhile at 9.45 a second company had taken the pocket without opposition.
At 10 a.m. the first company was still held. The men rested under the lip of the hill while the artillery again bombarded the enemy’s positions and flame-throwers were brought forward. At 1.30 the company surged over the crest of the hill and, after close fighting in which each bunker
was grenaded, the surviving Japanese fled leaving 38 visible dead and perhaps another 20 buried by the air and artillery bombardment. The Australians lost 2 killed and 3 wounded. “Aerial bombing coupled with artillery concentration does not deter the enemy from fighting nor unsettle him unduly,” wrote the battalion diarist. “Such fanatical resistance in face of such odds makes the capturing of these strong points no light task.”
On 22nd June a company attack went in against the last knoll before Shiburangu. In half an hour the Japanese were driven from covered pits in bush so dense that the men could see only three or four yards. In the course of the next few days the artillery registered on Shiburangu and the commanders of the leading companies were flown over it in light aircraft.
The onslaught on Shiburangu opened on the 27th with a strike by Beauforts, which dropped 1,000-1b, 500-lb and 250-lb bombs and almost cleared the forward slopes of timber. Then in 20 minutes guns of the 2/1st and 2/3rd Field Regiments poured 3,000 shells into the area. At 9 a.m. the forward company (Captain Dwyer) advanced with Lieutenant Westwood’s35 platoon leading. This platoon took a group of bunkers, but both it and the platoon on its left were pinned down by machine-gun fire. Lieutenant Hewit36 brought down artillery fire but could not silence the enemy. The third platoon (Lieutenant Trethowan37) made an outflanking move through a deep re-entrant on the left and, at 11.30, began a 300-foot climb to the summit up an exposed slope at a grade of 60 degrees. By 12.20, however, it was astride the western spur, completely surprising the enemy and capturing a bunker before it opened fire. It pressed on with great dash and was on top by 12.35 having taken every enemy position except one bunker “manned by three Japs who had already shared seven grenades but lived long enough to cause 15 Platoon’s only casualty, Private Smith,38 who was killed”. In the fight Trethowan received three bullets through his clothing and one through his hat. There were 20 bunkers on the hill, each generally manned by three men, and 44 Japanese were killed there; probably about 20 escaped to “Near Knoll” on the west and to a feature to the south. The 2/8th lost 2 killed and 4 wounded.
In the first half of June the 2/4th had pressed on towards Mount Tazaki in a series of patrol, platoon and company actions. On the 1st a patrol drove an enemy party from a razor-back above Koigin. By the 13th the battalion had cleared the eastern side of the Koigin–Tazaki track to a distance of 600 yards south of Koigin. Next day Captain Smith’s company made a successful two-platoon attack on Mount Kawakubo. Here the
enemy’s position was so well concealed and in such steep country that it was very hard to locate. Smith ordered his men to dig in and remain absolutely quiet. Then he shouted “Cooee” at the top of his voice. The Japanese opened fire with all their weapons, the artillery observer saw where the machine-guns were, and brought down very effective fire. Patrolling in the next two days showed that the only suitable approach to
Tazaki was along the eastern track and revealed a strong enemy position at the junction of tracks south from Koigin and Hill 910. Colonels Cox and Green, after a reconnaissance from the air, planned an attack by a company of the 2/4th and one of the 2/11th for 19th June. There was an air strike and a concerted bombardment. Captain Hawke’s company of the 2/4th attacked, met heavy fire, but went on, routed the enemy, and took the main position, killing 16 and losing one killed and one wounded. The attacking company of the 2/11th found its objective abandoned.
On the morning of 20th June Sergeant Hill39 and 24 men patrolled up the slopes of Tazaki, found the next knoll abandoned, and went on up a spur into which wooden steps had been built, with, at times, a handrail. Soon fire broke out and one man was killed. Hill was wounded trying to retrieve the body. Later the enemy withdrew and the advance continued. One company advanced up Tazaki in bounds with strong artillery support – 600 rounds were fired during the day – killed 14 Japanese, and penetrated to within 400 yards of the summit but were then forced back by heavy fire.
After two days of strenuous patrolling the assault on Tazaki was launched on 22nd June. It rained heavily that day. Twenty minutes before the infantry advanced the guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment began shelling the Japanese defences into which 3,000 rounds were fired before the attack and during its early stages. At 8.55 a.m. Lieutenant Mort’s40 company, with two platoons forward, advanced up the track through much debris and fallen timber to a position 200 yards from the summit without seeing any live Japanese, but passed many bunkers and five dead men. The Australians now came under machine-gun and rifle fire. The leading platoons were held; the third one moved round on the left but it too was held. The company then withdrew while the artillery poured 500 rounds on to the summit, and when, at 2.10 p.m., the attack was resumed in the same manner as before, the flanking platoon took one defended knoll but found that “the country near the top is a series of knolls and re-entrants, giving false crests and each knoll is dominated by the other making it ideal for defence”.41 Captain Hawke’s company took over on this flank and captured another knoll but was held at a third. Mort had now linked with Hawke and both companies dug in for the night, and a hot meal was carried forward.
There was very heavy rain that night and the trenches were filled with water. Everyone was wet through, cold and weary. A patrol found that one position from which fire had been coming on the 22nd had been abandoned. Another patrol found some floored, well-furnished huts to be unoccupied. It seemed likely that these had been the headquarters of the 51st Division. A third patrol under Lieutenant Gordon,42 moved up the west flank of Tazaki and established an outpost astride the east-west track, the main enemy line of communication, and during the day killed six Japanese there.
It was still raining on the 24th. Patrols from Smith’s company found that the enemy had abandoned several positions in its neighbourhood. After a mortar barrage Hawke’s men, without opposition, occupied the southern crest of Tazaki, which was the commanding feature of the mountain. Patrols probed the area on the 25th, and on the 26th Mort’s company moved around the only surviving Japanese – a strong pocket
of about 30 on a narrow razor-back spur – but could not find a usable approach. That night the Japanese stealthily departed from this stronghold probably as a result of harassing fire by the artillery. On the 27th a strong patrol found the enemy in position on a somewhat similar knoll. After further probing Colonel Cox and the commanders of the two companies between which the Japanese pocket lay, flew over it. On 1st July, which was dry and hot, an attack on the pocket was planned for the 2nd, but early that day heavy rain fell and, when it became evident that an air strike would be impossible, the attack was postponed. In the event an air strike was put on in the afternoon, and next morning, after heavy artillery fire, one company attacked and took the pocket. A patrol was ambushed farther on, however, and the regimental medical officer, Captain Williams,43 was killed and three wounded.
The 2/8th, having taken Shiburangu, had now found that the highest ground (1,650 feet) was actually 1,000 yards farther south. This eminence was called “The Blot” – the nickname of Lieutenant Trethowan whose skilful leadership had been largely responsible for taking Shiburangu. Exploiting, the 2/8th had some sharp actions before linking with the 2/4th. On 3rd July, in torrential rain, Captain Metcalf’s44 company attacked along the western spur of the mountain supported by bombers and by the artillery, which fired 1,500 rounds. They took this objective without loss, killing 23 Japanese. On 5th July the two battalions linked.
The 2/4th continued patrolling round Tazaki and the enemy continued to fight back vigorously. Early on the 7th a raiding party of about ten Japanese struck at an outpost platoon, killed one man and wounded the commander, Lieutenant Dean,45 but themselves lost five killed. That day the whole responsibility for the area was taken over by the 30th Battalion of the incoming 8th Brigade, and the 2/4th began resting and retraining on the beach. It was only 536 strong and of its 18 platoons only 8 were commanded by officers. At the end of the month Colonel Cox added this note to the war diary:
During the past three months the morale of the men has been very high indeed – the result of repeated successes, vigorous battles and good supply conditions. Earlier in the campaign it was noticeable that many of the troops, and officers too, considered the campaign not worth while and consequently morale dropped. At this time, however, there were restrictions on operations and supply was not of a very high standard, and although there were many reasons for this, they were not known or appreciated by the majority of personnel.
The strength of the infantry units was indeed dwindling to a grave degree. The battalions of the 16th Brigade generally were no better off than those of the 19th. The 16th was the only brigade of the 6th Division that had fought through the bitter Kokoda–Buna battles in 1942 and 1943. It would, no doubt, have astounded the people at home to learn that
the battalions of that brigade were in the Aitape–Wewak campaign suffering losses comparable with those in Papua in the earlier fighting. The 2/2nd Battalion lost 64 killed in action, died of wounds or died of injuries in Papua, and 54 between Aitape and Wewak. The 2/2nd had been somewhat reinforced since the hard fighting round Dagua and the 1410 Feature, but still had only 29 officers instead of 33, and 571 other ranks instead of 770. Three majors, all of whom had been with the battalion in the Middle East, had recently returned to the unit and 7 new lieutenants had either arrived from Australia or been commissioned in the field. On 23rd June the 2/3rd Battalion was only 20 plus 439 strong; there were only 139 riflemen, a deficiency of 222. Four days later 31 reinforcements arrived, where 330 were needed. There were 7 officers of the rank of captain and above instead of 13; only 10 platoons were commanded by officers. Of the 20 officers 8 had army numbers lower than NX8000, this indicating that they almost certainly had joined the battalion either in 1939 when it was being formed or very soon afterwards.
Throughout this period the Japanese were raiding boldly along the Australian-held coastal area as far west as But. In late May and early June the Japanese infiltration in the But area had assumed dangerous proportions. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion garrisoning this area faced a difficult problem. As the advance progressed eastward from But it was given the task of taking over the area vacated by the advancing formation with the task of keeping the Japanese out of it. Hence the area of responsibility allotted to the battalion became very extensive, and at one period covered 25 miles of densely timbered and precipitous mountain country. At this time the battalion was reduced to a little more than half strength and one company was with the commando regiment at Dove Bay. The task of patrolling this area and keeping it free of Japanese was a very difficult one indeed. It was not hard for enemy raiding parties to descend from the hills and reach the coastal roads without being detected. There were many encounters with the Japanese raiders, some of whose bases were beyond the range of Australian patrols. The policy of the 2/3rd Machine Gun was to send natives out on long-range patrols perhaps lasting several days to find the Japanese camps. On their return the natives were questioned in front of a sand model of the area and the exact positions of the enemy camps were fixed, These were then bombarded.
As mentioned, on 3rd June the 2/3rd Machine Gun was given the task of relieving the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment in the Mandi–Brandi area. Its task was to occupy Brandi Plantation and hold the cross-roads at Mandi with an outpost force so as to prevent the enemy moving west. Thus, on 11th June, two companies of the 2/3rd under Captain Bellair46 relieved the 2/9th Commando Squadron at Brandi and promptly began patrolling. One patrol under Bellair encountered the enemy in some strength – about 25 – at “Keyhole” and killed 3, Bellair
himself accounting for 2 of these. Next day a two-platoon attack with air and artillery support was put in at Keyhole; the bombardment drove the Japanese out.
From the beginning in this area the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion pursued its policy of strong offensive patrolling, ambushes and harassing fire by the artillery, and this succeeded in subduing, temporarily, the enemy’s raiding tactics. On the 13th the command at Brandi passed from Colonel Rickard,47 temporarily in command of the 2/6th Commando Regiment while Colonel Hennessy was on leave, to Colonel Gordon of the machine-gun battalion. In mid-July Rickard handed over the command of the regiment and returned to the less exacting task of commanding his anti-tank unit. At this stage of the war there must have been few men leading rifle units in action who were as old and as widely experienced as this remarkable warrior. In 1918, when 22, Rickard had been a twice-decorated major of artillery. He had served with distinction in the same rank in Syria in 1941, being then 45, and had since commanded a series of anti-tank regiments. His 21-year-old son had been killed in action at Derna four years before. Rickard was now nearly 50.
As a result of the renewal of Japanese raids in the Dagua–Boiken area the fourth company of the 2/3rd Machine Gun was held in that area where it had a more strenuous time than the companies farther forward – if the term “forward” had significance at this stage.
On 16th June in the Brandi area a platoon patrol of “A” Company which was to set an ambush on the enemy’s supply route was itself ambushed on the very spot, Sergeant Parkin48 being killed and two wounded. That night Japanese raided the same company without causing damage; indeed Private Johnson.49 captured one of the raiders, a lieutenant who was probably their leader. At this time the battalion began using its Vickers machine-guns for harassing the areas where the enemy were known to be established, spending as many as 3,000 rounds in a single fire program. The main body of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion continued to thrust patrols into the features to the south and every day one or more fierce clashes occurred. On the 19th on a feature named “Steve’s” there was a fight in which two Australians and four Japanese were killed. Next day there was a clash in which Corporal Nicholson50 was killed; Sergeant Bowering51 went forward under fire and carried in his body. Throughout this period Japanese guns shelled the area from time to time but the fire was erratic and no one was hit. The precise position of these guns proved very difficult to find, but the battalion had
its machine-guns trained on to the general area and the duels between the machine-guns and the enemy artillery were interesting interludes. At night hungry Japanese would creep down to the gardens near Brandi Plantation to dig potatoes; few returned to their own lines, the marauders being systematically ambushed.
In the early part of July the 8th Brigade (each of its battalions about 250 below strength) relieved the 2/4th and 2/11th and took over the Wirui Creek–Mandi area on the right flank. By the 14th the 30th Battalion was holding the Koigin sector forward to Tazaki; the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion (now under Brigadier Fergusson’s command and replacing the battalion which the 8th Brigade had left behind south of the Sepik) was round Boram and forward to Marin 2, the 35th Battalion round Brandi and Mandi and forward to Soarin. On the night of 10th–11th July the 30th had its first severe experience of Japanese attack when, without loss, it drove off a raiding group and killed thirteen.
Among the Japanese guns harassing the troops round Brandi were two which were shelling the area from a site about Soarin, and, on 12th July, after the shelling of the Angau compound had upset the natives there, General Stevens gave orders to Gordon of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion that they must be captured. A raiding force was formed, led by Captain Bellair and comprising two platoons of the machine-gunners and one from the 35th Battalion, to give it experience. The raiding force moved off stealthily through the country on the east side of the Brandi River before dawn on 18th July, lay hidden all day, and in the afternoon moved across the river near where the guns were believed to be. At 11 p.m. two assault groups each of twelve men were led in to positions below the features believed to be their objectives. Early next morning the men of the first group, after a difficult climb through tangled undergrowth, were close to their objective when they heard a loud voice giving orders and men moving about. They decided that surprise had been lost and rejoined the main force. The second group found the Japanese manning their defences, opened fire, killed six and withdrew under heavy fire. That afternoon, after 540 shells had been fired into the Japanese position, a platoon attack was made but the enemy had moved forward during the artillery fire and the attack failed. It was concluded afterwards that the force defending the ridge numbered from 60 to 100 and were in a well-built position, and that a more deliberate operation would be needed to expel them. It seemed likely that they were determined to defend their gardens in this area as long as they could.
Thus in June and July the units protecting the base areas were committed to much strenuous patrolling. On 17th June the 2/1st Battalion had been ordered to relieve the 2/2nd and take over the area Big Road–Sauri–Ranimboa–Cape Pus. Colonel Cullen ordered each of three companies to establish patrol bases from which to control this wide area: Captain J. C. Burrell’s at Yarabos, Captain Percival’s52 at Minga Gardens,
Captain Givney’s at Dallman Harbour. The main patrol tasks fell upon the Yarabos company which was astride the track leading inland.
After several skirmishes an enemy group was driven on 20th June from a position 3,000 yards along the track. On the 23rd Lieutenant Mavay’s platoon killed 5 Japanese only about 500 yards south of Yarabos and, on the way home, was ambushed, 2 natives being killed and 3 Australians wounded. Private Krueger53 promptly attacked the ambushers with rifle and grenades, killing 2 and wounding another, and a comrade killed a third.
It was evident that the enemy were resolved to defend the Yarabos Track at points close to the Australian base. On 26th June Mavay’s platoon found Japanese dug in at a bridge just north of Wiruru. Burrell brought up another platoon and next morning, after an artillery concentration, the Japanese were driven out. From Yarabos on 5th July two platoons under Lieutenant G. MacF. Nathan attacked and entered Wiruru, a collection of 23 huts in which large quantities of equipment were found abandoned.
In order to create a diversion during the advance of the 19th Brigade, the 2/1st had been ordered to thrust along the Sambukaua Track, beginning on 14th July. Two platoons of Givney’s company assembled at Wiruru on the 13th and in two clashes with the enemy killed 6 of them. Next day the company with artillery support thrust on about a mile and a half, killing 10. On the 15th the advance continued for a mile, 5 more Japanese being killed. Next day, 800 yards farther south, the enemy was driven out of another rearguard position and a native, Yaraworgy, “was ordered to climb a tree and stated that he could see Sambukaua. He then successfully directed an artillery shoot on to the village.” While in this area the 2/1st and the engineers simplified the problem of supplying the Yarabos base, initially fed by native carriers toiling up from the coast, by clearing the snags from the creek leading to it and transporting supplies in launches and folding boats.
At this stage the cheerful familiarity with which the troops were treating the many native labourers was causing concern among Angau officers, and the following instructions were issued:
(a) Natives will, under no circumstances, be picked up or carried in jeeps. This in no way affects the carrying of natives in the back of larger vehicles on duty.
(b) No native will enter camp areas except on duty and then only under the supervision of Angau overseer or boss boy.
(c) Troops will not enter native compounds except on duty.
(d) Natives will not be allowed to visit picture shows or other forms of entertainment.
(e) Troops will have no dealings with natives outside the course of duty.
(f) Natives will not be given grenades or explosives for fishing.
The 2/6th Commando Regiment was now coping with daring infiltration to the west round Boiken. On 24th June five Japanese approaching
along the beach entered the Angau compound at Wisling, stole 3 Owen guns, a pistol, and 3 Japanese rifles. A patrol followed these marauders, killed 2 and retrieved the weapons. Next day about 10 Japanese ambushed a party of the 2/10th Commando Squadron south of Boiken Plantation and killed Lieutenant Martin54 and wounded 4 others; and that night about 20 stole into the plantation. On 28th June signs were found that some 35 Japanese had slept the previous night 400 yards from a commando perimeter. On 23rd July a commando patrol had a sharp clash with perhaps 40 Japanese in the hills south of Wanpea and more than 15 miles west of Wewak; 8 Japanese were killed and 4 Australians, including Lieutenant Redmond.55
The Japanese were justly proud of the valour and successes of the raiding parties which harassed the Australians between Wewak and Dagua in May, June and July. Several groups were organised and trained for these enterprises, the most celebrated being led by Lieutenant Hachiro Saito of the 78th Regiment who had first earned fame as a patrol leader in the Huon Peninsula fighting. In June his party set off to raid Maprik, but was intercepted, Saito and most of his followers being killed. From 15th June onwards two parties of raiders operated in the Karawop and Boiken areas with the object of diverting their enemy’s strength away from the 51st Division farther east. These parties, which claimed to have killed more than 100 Australians – a wild over-estimate – were the ones coped with by the 2/6th Commando Regiment. Another series of raids in late July and early August were considered less successful, because of improved Australian security measures.
Captured documents and interrogation of prisoners now indicated that the Japanese, with the 115th Regiment and part of the 66th, totalling 400, were defending the Big Road in strength, the main strongholds being The Blot, Hambrauri 1 and 2, Rindogim and Numoikum. On 4th July Stevens had ordered the 19th Brigade to destroy the enemy in these areas, and on 13th July Brigadier Martin, now in command again, ordered the 2/8th to take The Blot and then Hambrauri 2. For some days the 2/8th had been feeling its way towards The Blot, which was separated from Shibu-rangu by a deep main gorge cut with smaller steep-sided valleys between narrow spurs. The approach along the Big Road was strongly defended and the attack was made from the north-east along a more difficult but less likely route. The 2/8th’s assault on The Blot opened on the morning of 14th July. Gately’s company, supported by devastating artillery fire – 3,500 rounds – attacked from the north-east, moved swiftly, and, while the artillery and mortars shelled the reverse slope, thrust through smashed defences and fallen trees to the summit whence the victors saw the surviving Japanese making off to the south. By 11 a.m. The Blot had been taken and soon patrols were moving down the ridges to the south and west.
Next day the 2/8th took a spur running west to the Big Road, thus gaining control of the Big Road from The Blot to Shiburangu. The rapid
capture of these positions disorganised the defenders and made a swift exploitation to Hambrauri 1 advisable. On 16th July a company took Hambrauri 1 without opposition. Next day patrols to the south met strong opposition on “St Patrick’s”, the highest ground on the spur joining the Hambrauris, and a long fire fight ensued. St Patrick’s was probed by patrols and bombarded, and on 21st July Captain Dwyer’s company attacked after a concentration in which 900 rounds were fired. Sergeant Gibbs’56 platoon moving up the southern spur of St Patrick’s was held by fire. Lieutenant Trethowan’s moved round on its left and soon the spur was in Australian hands, 21 Japanese being killed there and elsewhere in the battalion’s area that day. Hambrauri 2 was taken without opposition next day. In the advance from Shiburangu the 2/8th killed 146 and took 8 prisoners, but lost only 2 killed.
The 8th Brigade was patrolling to the south and gaining experience. On 21st July Major Serong57 led out from the 35th Battalion a force of three platoons (including one for carrying), specialist detachments, and native police to destroy an enemy ammunition dump. They found it unguarded and started it exploding. Explosions continued for half an hour. The only opposition was some random rifle fire as the patrol withdrew. On 27th July patrols from both the 30th and 35th Battalions clashed with enemy parties and killed 8, losing 2 men wounded. Late in July the brigade area was being shelled almost daily. On 4th August there were encounters in which 7 Japanese were killed. While in the Wewak area the brigade killed 109 Japanese and took 9 prisoners, and lost 9 killed and 32 wounded.
All the infantry of the division, except the two battalions of the 8th Brigade, were now in urgent need of long rest, but the 17th Brigade most of all. On 21st July, after discussing the condition of the men with Moten, Stevens gave orders for a series of reliefs that would take more than two months to complete. The 16th Brigade would replace the 19th. The 19th after a spell would relieve the 17th, which would go into reserve. The 16th Brigade began to relieve the 19th on 25th July. Three days earlier General Stevens had ordered Brigadier King to capture Numoikum, clear Rindogim, patrol vigorously, and prepare for a further advance westward towards Paparam as soon as he could supply a force so far forward.
Consequently the 2/2nd Battalion relieved the 2/8th in the Hambrauri area on 28th July. Next day it sent out two platoon patrols which killed 5 stragglers and found 4 dead. On the 30th a patrol killed 2 Japanese officers who were in a party of 5; the others escaped. That day Lieutenant Finlayson’s platoon encountered about 10 Japanese dug in on a ridge with a cleared field of fire and in the ensuing fight killed 2 and then withdrew. On the 31st Lieutenant Donoghue’s58 platoon was sent out to clear the enemy off this ridge. They found the enemy still in the
same position, brought down artillery fire but found it impossible to advance except in single file and withdrew. This position, occupied by a handful of men, was typical of many where small parties were now dug in and prepared to fight to the end. The narrowness of the steep ridges made these positions difficult to subdue with artillery fire-250 rounds were fired into this one – and even more difficult to attack with infantry except at heavy cost.
It now seemed evident that the enemy intended to hold fast on a ridge about a mile South-west of Hambrauri in order to defend Numoikum and protect an escape route by way of Rindogim to the south; captured documents showed that Mount Shoto was the site of a headquarters. Captain McCammon’s59 company was given the task of capturing the knolls covering Rindogim on the 1st and exploiting to Rindogim next day.
At the first of these knolls the attacking company dispersed a group of Japanese and then with one platoon advancing north and another south of the track took both knolls, losing one man killed and killing five Japanese. Beyond this point the track divided, one branch leading southeast to Rindogim and the other South-west to the Numoikum area. On the 2nd Captain Derbyshire’s company was to secure the track junction and advance on Numoikum while McCammon’s advanced on Rindogim. Thus on the morning of the 2nd Derbyshire’s men took the track junction and successfully attacked the enemy force on Mount Shoto, killing nine; in the afternoon they patrolled forward along the track, encountered the enemy again and killed four. Meanwhile McCammon’s leading platoon (Lieutenant Robertson60) had reached the outskirts of Rindogim, seen some 15 Japanese and had a sharp fight. In the day 19 Japanese were killed.
The 3rd August was spent in patrolling, and on the 4th Derbyshire’s company was pressing on towards Numoikum and McCammon’s towards Rindogim. Derbyshire’s company had a series of sharp engagements and was eventually held some 700 yards from the starting-point in rugged country covered with bamboo and pit-pit. Ten Japanese were killed but 2 Australians were killed and 5 wounded, including Lieutenant Donoghue. In the course of the action Donoghue had led his platoon through precipitous country, got astride the track behind the Japanese, and led a charge against their rear. He refused to be carried out until the action was over.
Meanwhile in the afternoon McCammon’s company attacked Rindogim. The forward platoon led with great dash by Sergeant Donnett attacked gallantly up a very steep slope towards the village, and then Lieutenant Lochhead’s61 platoon pressed through and completed the task. The village was secured and ten Japanese killed for a loss of one wounded.
The enemy continued to defend the track into the Numoikum villages with resolution and the villages were not taken until the 6th when, after a 2,000-round artillery concentration, Derbyshire’s company attacked with flame-throwers, which caused the enemy to flee in panic, 18 dead being counted in the day. The enemy fire in these engagements was the most intense this battalion had encountered in the campaign.
The flame-throwers, brought into use so late, had generally been most effective, and on the 9th they were sent forward against a group of Japanese south of Rindogim. They failed to work, however, because the pressure tanks were leaking at the check valve; surprise was lost and the enemy wounded five Australians.62 For the next six days the battalion remained on the defensive; news had come that a cease fire was imminent.
In the course of these last operations General Stevens at the Government’s direction and against his own wishes had been released from the army to go to a senior appointment in the Commonwealth Public Service and, until the arrival of Major-General Robertson early in August, Brigadier King commanded the division, and Colonel Cullen the 16th Brigade.
The main body of the XVIII Army was now in an arc facing north and west. The 51st Division was on the right opposing the troops advancing from Wewak, the 20th Division in the centre and the 41st on the left.
Yoshiwara had now reported that the food resources of the Sepik area were less than had been believed, though there might be more in the hinterland. Already about 2,800 troops were stationed in the Sepik Valley from Marienberg to about Kanganaman and were living off the country. Adachi decided to make a last stand in the area embracing, in the north, Nyakombi and Sassuia. Here they would fight on “as long as ammunition and food are available and at least until the end of September”. Liaison was to be maintained with the force in the Sepik area which was to prepare to carry on “ambush warfare” after the main force had been wiped out. This plan had been conveyed to Field Marshal Terauchi, commanding the Southern Army, and he approved it on 8th July.
At the same time Terauchi sent a citation to the XVIII Army. It was the first time that a Japanese army had been so honoured. The citation ran: “To the 18th Army and all attached units: With Lieut-General Hatazo Adachi as your commander, you have fought vigorously for three years in north-east New Guinea, where numerous epidemics prevailed and where the terrain was hitherto unknown to any Japanese. When the enemy occupied the west coast in April 1944, to cut off supplies,
you learned to live off grass and trees, and by making the best of the situation, you conquered all unfavourable conditions. Officers and soldiers alike displayed the true spirit of the Japanese Army. Wherever you encountered the enemy, you crushed them and inflicted many casualties. You have inspired fear into the hearts of the enemy and diverted their sea and air strength, thereby contributing much to the Southern Army’s operations and furthermore, to all the Armies of the Empire. You were able to accomplish this through the excellent leadership, planning, fidelity and character of your Army Commander. By the sense of sincerity, loyalty and moral obligation of all the troops, you have set a model for all men to follow. I hereby present this citation and proclaim this to all the Armies.”
After the war the Japanese commanders affirmed that they were spurred on round Aitape–Wewak as in Bougainville by the knowledge that their resistance was holding down troops who might otherwise have been used elsewhere. There was never any thought of surrender or precipitate retreat.
The strength of the XVIII Army had been greatly underestimated throughout: it was now believed to total about 8,600 whereas it was in fact about 13,500. When fighting ceased it was found that facing the 17th Brigade were 255 officers and 1,456 men of the 20th Division and 158 and 989 of the 41st Division. In addition, close to the 2/7th Battalion round the Mount Turu, Warimba and Haripmor areas were forces totalling 2,237. The 51st Division was about 6,000 strong, and other units totalled about 3,000.
After the surrender the Australians were surprised at the good health and bearing of the Japanese troops, when so many who had been encountered during the fighting were sick and dirty. Account must be taken, however, of the fact that the Japanese were then rested, and were under orders, in this area as in others, to present as neat and disciplined an appearance as possible in order to impress their captors.
In the campaign 442 officers and men of the 6th Division were killed in action or died of wounds, and 1,141 were wounded.63 The admissions to hospital because of sickness were:
|Dysentery, Dengue and Scrub Typhus||1,220|
Seventeen officers and 128 others died from causes other than battle wounds.
The battle casualties in this ten months’ campaign were about the same as those suffered by the 7th Division in six weeks in Syria, where 416 were killed and 1,136 wounded. In the only other campaigns in which the 6th Division had fought as a complete division its casualties were:
Cyrenaica, 256 dead, 861 wounded and 21 prisoners; Greece (including corps troops), 320 dead, 494 wounded, and 2,030 prisoners.64
In ten months the division had advanced 70 miles along the coast, from the Driniumor to Forok Point, and, in the inland sector, 45 miles from Tong to Kiarivu, and had driven the Japanese from 3,000 square miles of territory. About 9,000 Japanese were killed and 269 taken prisoner.65 It had been a galling campaign under most arduous conditions in heartbreaking country against a ruthless and resolute enemy. The losses suffered by the Australians, although small by comparison with those they inflicted, were made harder to bear by reason of the conviction, particularly among veteran campaigners, that the operations were of minor importance. The existence of this feeling underlines the devotion of the troops who, in spite of it, went into the attack with their usual dash until the end. The determined defence offered by the Japanese was the more admirable in view of the hopelessness of their situation and the appalling losses they were suffering, both in battle and from disease and malnutrition.
The total strength of the formations that became the XVIII Japanese Army was about 100,000.66 By the time of the American landings west of Wewak, and largely as a result of the losses inflicted on the 20th, 41st and 51st Divisions, or parts of them, in the Australian offensives of 1943-44, they appear to have numbered about 54,000.67 After their counter-attack on Aitape which ended in August 1944 there were, according to several accounts, 41,000; according to one account 35,000. According to another account 30,000 remained by the end of 1944. A year later only 13,300 had survived. In three years probably about 90,000 Japanese soldiers – Adachi said “more than 100,000” – had died in the area between Milne Bay and Aitape or in the hinterland. This is more than two-thirds the number of Japanese who died in the whole of the fighting in Burma, estimated at 128,000.68
About 300,000 Japanese, including about 20,000 civilian workers, were landed in New Guinea and the Solomons from 1942 onwards; 127,000 were alive at the surrender; of the remainder perhaps 60,000 were killed in battle and about 110,000 died of illness.
After the war Adachi was charged with war crimes, including the killing of prisoners, and on 12th July 1947 was sentenced to imprisonment for life. On 10th September that year he killed himself in his quarters in the prisoners’ compound at Rabaul, having first written a number of letters.
In one of these, addressed to those officers and men of the XVIII Army who were then in the compound, he said:
I felt it a great honour to have been appointed the C-in-C in November 1942, at a time when the issue of the day was to be settled, and posted to the point of strategic importance in order to ensure that the tide of war moved in our favour. I was thankful for that appointment. However, notwithstanding the fact that my officers and men did their best in the exceptional circumstances, surmounting all difficulties, and that my superiors gave the utmost assistance, the hoped-for end was not attained, because of my inability. Thus I paved the way for my country to be driven into the present predicament. The crime deserves death.
During the past three years of operations more than 100,000 youthful and promising officers and men were lost and most of them died of malnutrition. When I think of this, I know not what apologies to make to His Majesty the Emperor and I feel that I myself am overwhelmed with shame. ... I have demanded perseverance far exceeding the limit of man’s endurance of my officers and men, who were exhausted and emaciated as a result of successive campaigns and for want of supplies. However, my officers and men all followed my orders in silence without grumbling, and, when exhausted, they succumbed to death just like flowers falling in the winds. God knows how I felt when I saw them dying, my bosom being filled with pity for them, though it was solely to their country that they dedicated their lives. At that time I made up my mind not to set foot on my country’s soil again but to remain as a clod of earth in the Southern Seas with the 100,000 officers and men, even if a time should come when I would be able to return to my country in triumph.
In both Australian and Japanese history the offensives of 1945 will endure as examples of splendid fortitude, but whether they should have happened seems likely always to be in dispute.