Chapter 17: Tarakan: Town and Airfield Taken
ON 21st March General MacArthur instructed General Morshead that, using the 26th Brigade Group, he was to seize and hold Tarakan Island, and destroy the enemy’s forces there. The Netherlands Indies government was to be re-established and the oil-producing and oil-processing installations conserved. As soon as the airfield on Tarakan had been repaired squadrons of the First Tactical Air Force were to be established there: one wing of fighters by P-plus-6 day, a wing of attack bombers by P-plus-15, and staging facilities for two additional squadrons of fighters and two of attack bombers by P-plus-20. As soon as possible the brigade group was to be relieved by a garrison force and freed for operations farther west.
The chain of command for this operation by a reinforced brigade group was a long one: GHQ to I Corps to 9th Division to 26th Brigade. The accompanying diagram, showing the commands concerned and the authorised channels of communication, illustrates some of the complexities of even a small amphibious operation at this stage of the war. On 24th March General Morshead gave General Wootten his outline plans for the operations against both Tarakan and Brunei Bay and the corps staff’s studies were issued, whereupon planning began at the headquarters of the division. Next day the GHQ staff study for Tarakan arrived, and on the 26th the GHQ operation instruction. Fortunately this involved no alteration of the outline plan on which the divisional staff had then been working for two days.
By the end of March the planning headquarters of Amphibious Group Six of the American Navy (which would carry the attacking force to
Tarakan), I Corps, the 9th Division, the 26th Brigade, and Advanced RAAF Command were all on Morotai and inter-Services planning was in progress. Rear-Admiral Forrest B. Royal, USN, commanding Amphibious Group Six, arrived at Morotai on his headquarters ship, Rocky Mount, on 6th April. The naval covering force was a “Task Group” commanded by Rear-Admiral Russell S. Berkey, USN Additional naval support was to be provided by units of the American Seventh Fleet, including Australian ships.
Brigadier D. A. Whitehead’s brigade group was far stronger than the term suggests.1 It included 40 units and sub-units, the principal ones, including those in the beach group, being:
2/2nd Pioneer Battalion
2/3rd Pioneer Battalion
2/4th Commando Squadron
“C” Squadron 2/9th Armoured Regiment
“D” Company, 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion
2/7th Field Regiment
53rd Composite Anti-Aircraft Regiment2
2/11th Field Company
2/13th Field Company
2nd Field Company
110th Casualty Clearing Station
2/11th Field Ambulance
During 1944, when American forces had landed in Dutch territory, they were accompanied by detachments of the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA) whose task was to assist the commander on the spot to administer the civil population. It was arranged that when the Australians occupied Tarakan and Balikpapan – far larger towns than any yet regained in the Netherlands Indies – they should be accompanied in each operation not only by a NICA group but by a company of Dutch and Indonesian troops. By August the NICA group on Tarakan was to number 15 officers and 65 other ranks.
The island of Tarakan was 15 miles long and 11 miles wide at its widest part. The shores were muddy and often covered with mangroves, and inland, rising steeply from a swampy coastal plain, was a tangle of hills and small steep gullies covered with dense rain forest and secondary growth. Only one beach – that at Lingkas, the port of Tarakan town which lay two miles inland – was considered feasible for the landing of so large a force and it was very fiat and soft and, inevitably, was commanded by strong defences. It had the advantage, however, of exit roads able to carry the heavy equipment needed to repair the only airfield, which was three miles and a half to the north-west. This field had often been cratered by Allied bombers and was now water-logged.
The two oilfields on Tarakan – Pamusian and Juata – were producing between them in 1940 some 500,000 tons a year. The Dutch had damaged the oilfield equipment before the Japanese arrived in January 1942, but the Japanese, by 1944, were reported to be producing oil at almost the pre-war rate. More recently, however, air attacks had greatly reduced the output. From Lingkas one bitumen
road led to the airfield and on to the Juata oilfields, and another travelled beside a pipeline to Tarakan town. The first road was named on the Australian maps Anzac Highway, the second Glenelg Highway. In Batagau Strait between Tarakan and the mainland lies Sadau Island, about 1,200 yards by 750, and about six miles north-west of Lingkas.
It has been seen that in the New Guinea operations those knolls and ridges which became tactically important were given names when this became convenient – often the names of officers and men, or their nicknames. When planning the assaults on Tarakan and Balikpapan, where the troops would from the first day onward be fighting among a tangle of “features”, the staffs systematically named each of a multitude of little hills; for example, “Essex”, “Sykes”, “Margy”, “Essie”, “Milko”. This helped to make plans, orders and signals simpler and more precise.
Early in April the strength of the Japanese force on Tarakan was estimated at about 4,000 of whom 2,500 were base troops. On the eve of the attack, however, largely because of information indicating that a battalion had been moved from Tarakan to Balikpapan, it was estimated that only 1,500 to 2,000 troops remained on the island. (It was discovered later that the total was about 2,100, including some 250 civilian workers who were later incorporated in the army. The principal units were the 455th Battalion, which had arrived in December 1944, about 860 strong, and the 2nd Naval Garrison Force, about 900 strong, and including a company of the Kure Special Naval Landing Force.)
Aerial photographs showed five gun positions on the South-eastern tip of the island covering the channel along which ships normally entered Tarakan. Round Lingkas and Tarakan there seemed to be 15 anti-aircraft guns, and 9 medium and 5 light anti-aircraft guns seemed to be round
the airfield.3 The whole of Lingkas beach was protected by parallel rows of posts, rails and pipes driven into the mud and extending into the sea to a distance of 125 yards from high-water mark; and between the
beach and the road was an anti-tank ditch about 25 feet wide. A group of oil tanks was near the beach and, as it was possible that the Japanese might try to impede an attacker by flooding the oil over the sea and the swamp near the Pamusian River and setting it alight, the air force had taken pains to destroy these tanks. Field works could be seen; there were concrete pill-boxes built by the Dutch; and it was suspected that, here as elsewhere, tunnels had been dug into the hills.
The initial tasks of the 26th Brigade Group were to establish a beach position to cover the landing, capture a covering position within which a beach maintenance area could be established, and seize enough ground to make possible the repair and defence of the airfield. The intention was to move two airfield construction squadrons to the airfield, and later, as mentioned, to establish there seven squadrons and other air force detachments.
When the divisional and naval staffs made a detailed study of the beach and the tides they decided that conditions would be better on 1st May than 29th April. GHQ approved this change on 11th April, and the same day Morshead approved the coordinated plans of the three Services.
The air force was to attack Tarakan from 11th to 29th April, and destroy oil storage tanks, gun positions, radar stations, defences and buildings. In the same period Tawao, on the east coast of British Borneo, was to be attacked to disguise the real intention, and all airfields within range were to be bombed. Minesweeping was to begin on the 27th. Naval support was to be given by the cruiser force commanded by Rear-Admiral Berkey and including the Australian cruiser Hobart and destroyer Warramunga; air support by RAAF Command and the Thirteenth Air Force. The transport and landing craft unit of the naval force was to include:
Before the main landings a party led by Captain V. D. Prentice was put ashore on Tarakan to gain information. Prentice had already led a party of six which had established an observation post and collected information on Batanta Island west of the Vogelkop in New Guinea. On 24th April Prentice’s party was stealthily inserted into Tarakan and it observed enemy movements until 3rd May when it joined the invasion force and gave useful information to Brigadier Whitehead.
Two preliminary operations were to be carried out on 30th April, the day before the main landing: the 2/4th Commando Squadron and a battery of Lieut-Colonel Green’s5 2/7th Field Regiment would land at 8 a.m. on Sadau Island and thence the artillery would support engineers as they made eight gaps in the beach obstacles. The main landing was to begin at 8.15 a.m. on 1st May on a two-battalion front: the 2/23rd Battalion on Green Beach and the 2/48th on Red Beach. The 2/24th Battalion, in reserve, would then land on Green Beach. The naval force would give covering fire until the landing craft were 400 yards off shore and the air squadrons would attack the beach-head until 15 minutes before the landing. Four B-25’s and four fighters were to be over the area continuously from 7.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. for the first seven days.
Ashore the 2nd Beach Group (Colonel C. R. Hodgson) was to establish and operate a beach maintenance area, and detachments from the 1st Base Sub-Area were included in the force to assist in developing a base which would remain on Tarakan after the departure of the beach group, which would be needed for the north Borneo operation. At Tarakan the 2nd Beach Group had under command the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, 2/11th Field Company and other units and detachments.
An alternative general plan was prepared for use if the engineers were unable to breach the offshore obstacles or if for any other reason the main landing failed. It provided for a landing at Juata, on the northwest coast and an advance southward to Tarakan town.6
From 12th March onwards transports had landed at Morotai each week from 6,000 to 7,000 troops of I Corps with their equipment and stores, and by 17th April the 26th Brigade Group was complete except for some RAAF contingents. Because of the late embarkation at Sydney of No. 8 Airfield Construction Squadron, one of the two such units allotted to the assault force, and other RAAF detachments, it was feared that the ship carrying them would not arrive until too late for them to re-embark in the assault ships. They arrived on 25th April, however, just in time.
A rehearsal was held at Morotai on 24th April. No one was landed, but the craft were filled, formed up, advanced to the beach in proper order, and then turned away. The drill was carried out at good speed and everything went well. The officers were surprised, therefore, when a signal arrived from Admiral Royal that he was displeased with the light-hearted attitude of the troops. It was discovered that the admiral was annoyed to see the men in felt hats instead of helmets. In fact there were few helmets in the brigade, and none at all in at least one battalion. Steel helmets were seldom worn by Australians in the South-West Pacific.
The 26th Brigade Group was now about to enter its second Pacific campaign. It had fought in the Lae-Huon Peninsula offensive from September 1943 to January 1944. Brigadier Whitehead had led this brigade since September 1942 when it was in action at El Alamein; Lieut-Colonel R. I. Ainslie of the 2/48th and Lieut-Colonel F. A. G. Tucker of the 2/23rd had commanded those battalions in the Huon Peninsula operations. Lieut-Colonel Warfe, who had led first an Independent Company and then a battalion in the Salamaua operations in 1943, had taken command of the 2/24th in January 1945. The 2/3rd Pioneers (Lieut-Colonel Anderson7) had fought round Finschhafen; the 2/4th Commando Squadron, under Major K. B. Garvey, had seen hard service on Timor and in the Lae–Huon Peninsula operations in 1943.
The naval covering force arrived off Tarakan on the morning of 27th April, and by the evening of the 29th the minesweepers had swept and
buoyed the approach route to within 800 yards of the beach and to Sadau Island. From 12th April onwards Liberator, Mitchell and Lightning aircraft made a total of 300 sorties over Tarakan and dropped more than 200 tons of bombs. The oilfields were set on fire and there were soon large patches of oil and soot on the sea for a distance of 20 miles from the coast. Rain and smoke obscured the town on 28th and 29th April when two cruisers bombarded targets ashore and aircraft made heavy attacks.
The force that was to land on Sadau Island and the engineers who were to breach the offshore barriers sailed from Morotai on 26th April and arrived off the island early on the 30th. At 7.40 a.m. the 2/4th Commando Squadron landed unopposed, and at 9.25, after a struggle with the muddy beach, the first gun (of the 57th Battery, Major Rungie8) was got ashore from an LSM. By 10.30 a.m. two guns were in position, by 11 o’clock five were in position and had begun to range. A few minutes later they began firing smoke shells to assist the engineers, on whose efforts the success of the accepted plan entirely depended.
The beach on which the engineers were beginning their difficult undertaking consisted of a coral shelf covered with mud which varied from fairly firm clay at high-water mark to soft mud at low-water mark. The tidal range was about nine feet and low water about 300 yards from the dune-line of the beach. There were to be two phases in the attack on the obstacles: the first was timed for half tide when there would be about one foot of water at the outer line of obstacles, but the second was to be made, at the navy’s request, an hour before half tide, so that ships could be withdrawn an hour before sundown; consequently (as it was on a rising tide) about 100 yards of mud would have to be negotiated by the engineers to reach the obstacles.
The task initially given to the 2/13th Field Company (Major Foreman9) was to make eight gaps of not less than 30 feet each in the underwater obstacles on Red (the northern) Beach and Green (the southern one), and four of not less than 60 feet on Yellow Beach, in the centre. Later it was decided to make 60-foot gaps on Red and Green Beaches as well as Yellow.
The obstacle nearest the beach (about 50 yards from high water) was built of timber posts and old wire in poor repair, the second of a double staggered row of posts of 8 to 10 inches in diameter and about 8 feet apart, the third of single posts about 8 feet apart, the fourth (about 130 yards from high-water mark) of a double staggered row of 90 to 100-lb rails and iron pipes of 6 inches diameter 8 feet high and again 8 to 10 feet apart.
Foreman had allotted two officers and eight detachments each of six sappers to the primary attack, with a further six detachments of five
sappers each as reinforcements. The first eight detachments, commanded by Lieutenant Dods,10 were to be taken forward in LVTs.11 Beginning at 11 a.m. they were to attack at Red and Green; the attack on Yellow was to open at 3.15 p.m. The attacks were thoroughly rehearsed and a drill evolved.
A naval bombardment was to begin 20 minutes before the engineers reached the objective. Aircraft were to strike targets on the beach for 30 minutes during the operation and others were to lay a smoke screen seven minutes before the engineers began work. The guns on Sadau would give support. The detachments set out on time from the line of departure in their eight LVTs, with Foreman ready to direct operations from an LCI, which carried also an officer to direct artillery fire and one to liaise with the supporting naval vessels. Because of the strong tidal set Foreman was 800 yards from the shore when command was turned over to him by the navy and the LVTs had drifted nearly a mile south; it was 11.15 – a quarter of an hour late – before the Red Beach teams touched down. There was another mishap; no aircraft had yet arrived to lay the smoke screen. A twin machine-gun opened fire on the engineers but was soon silenced by machine-gunners on the LVTs.
There was no opposition for the next ten minutes, and Foreman used the discretion which had been given to him to send in the Yellow Beach parties early should the lack of opposition warrant it. These detachments, which were waiting in six LCVPs12, touched down at 11.30. By this time there was a gap of about 50 yards of mud beyond the obstacle and the sappers had to wade through it waist deep. Also at 11.30 twelve mortar bombs burst among the LCVPs but without hitting anyone; and the smoke-laying aircraft arrived and put a screen 200 yards inland from the beach, making it difficult for the defenders to observe the proceedings out to sea.
When Lance-Sergeant Nixon’s13 party was ordered to withdraw until a second attack at 3 p.m. four steel rails remained intact. Nixon, doubtful whether he would be able to reach the obstacle through the mud at 3 p.m., obtained permission to remain at the job until it was finished. All matches and fuse lighters having been soaked in the mud Nixon struggled ashore, walked along the beach to the oil pipe under fire, went to the end of the jetty and obtained fresh fuse lighters from an LCVP. He then returned thc, way he had come and completed his gap. As his LVT was bogged Nixon led his party out along the beach and pier whence an LCVP picked them up. By 12.10 p.m., ten minutes after the making of gaps on Red and Green should have finished, although all gaps at Green had been made, and one at Yellow, none had been completed at Red
because the LVTs were bogged at the entrance to the gaps. Foreman and the naval commander decided to continue until 12.45. At 1 p.m. the gaps on Yellow and Red had still not been finished. At this stage two craft were bogged on Red and two on Yellow.
The crews on Green and Yellow were now withdrawn and the second attack organised. This operation was “most exhausting as the sappers had to lie flat on the mud and drag themselves to the obstacles on life-lines previously laid from each vehicle and craft engaged.”14 In an hour, however, all gaps had been completed and marked except one on Yellow, where three wooden posts were left which Foreman considered could be knocked over by the LCMs. There were no casualties despite sniping and mortar fire. It took 45 minutes to retrieve the exhausted sappers who had either to be dragged in through the mud or to wade ashore and come out along the oil pier. They had used 780 explosive charges during the operation.
The main convoy arrived off the South-west of Tarakan Island an hour before sunrise on 1st May. The naval bombardment opened at 6.40, the two cruisers and six destroyers firing on targets along the beach and up to half a mile inland. During this bombardment the assaulting troops embarked into their landing craft, and these were marshalled behind a line of departure marked by anchored craft and divided into sections corresponding to Red, Yellow and Green Beaches. In the Green Beach sector the LVT carrying the 2/23rd Battalion assembled; in the Red Beach sector were LCVPs carrying the 2/48th, which had been in the Manoora. The 2/24th was being disembarked from Westralia into LCVPs which would land at Green Beach when required. Farther back LCMs from the LSD Rushmore, containing engineer equipment and tanks, were being marshalled. At 7.56 craft armed with rockets and mortars set off towards Tarakan followed by the wave of LVTs carrying the 2/23rd to Green Beach and the wave of LCVPs carrying the 2/48th to Red Beach. At 7.58 aircraft opened an attack on the beach area that was to continue until just before the leading craft beached.
“The beach appeared to be an inferno and was continually aflame from the crimson flashes of bursting bombs and shells,” wrote the diarist of the 2/48th. As the craft reached the gaps which the engineers had blown in the beach obstacles, the fire was lifted from the beach to a line farther inland and in a few moments the craft ran on to the sand. There was no opposition on the beach.
Nevertheless the 2/23rd had an uncomfortable landing. The LVTs were halted by a 12-foot embankment along the high-water line and the troops, instead of disembarking from the rear ramp, had to scramble over the front of the craft into mud up to three feet deep. This caused a general slowing down, and there was much congestion on the shore. The two forward companies had reached their first objectives by 8.40. Then the opposition stiffened. Sharp fire came from Lingkas Hill.
On the left Major Issell’s15 company made slow progress up the Roach feature through undergrowth so thick that tracks had to be cut. At 11.45 they reached the north side of this hill and came under fire from a strong Japanese position. Issell, a platoon commander (Lieutenant Enderby16) and four others were hit; Lieutenant Head17 took command until Captain Simmons18 arrived to lead this company. They pressed on and by 6 p.m. had forced the enemy out; 15 Japanese dead lay round.
Meanwhile Captain Sedgley’s19 company, following Simmons’, took two pill-boxes and a field gun and then advanced eastward down Lingkas spur; by 7.20 p.m. the spur was in their hands. This enabled the right-hand company, hitherto held by fire from Lingkas, to advance along Glenelg Highway, and to dig in on the left of the highway that night.
The 2/48th on the left had practically a dry landing – a pleasant surprise as they had been told that they would probably have to wade 100 yards. By 8.31 a.m. Captain Gooden’s20 company on the right had secured the oil tanks and was under fire from a spur of Roach; and Captain Lavan’s21 company on the left had secured the bridge over the Sibengkok and a large feature on the left of the beach. By 8.38 all the battalion’s first objectives had been secured.
The enemy abandoned the pill-boxes from which fire had been brought down on Gooden’s company, which was now in touch with the flanking battalion. Captain R. W. Lewin’s company passed through and began to move up Finch through thick undergrowth. This company thrust forward, and by 10.20 the leading platoon was in close touch with the enemy on the crest of Finch, and heavy firing could be heard in the 2/23rd’s area to the right. There were only a dozen Japanese with one machine-gun on Finch but the direct approach was along a razor-back spur; a flanking move was made, however, and by 10.55 the enemy had been overcome, nine being killed.
Colonel Ainslie, who now had his tactical headquarters on a hill with an excellent view of the front, ordered Gooden with the support of two tanks – the third tank of this troop was bogged on the beach – to move through Lavan’s company on Anzac Highway and take Collins Highway ridge. The tanks could not get past a big bomb crater south of the junction with Collins Highway, but the company went on and by 1.40 p.m. held the western end of the ridge. Here they came under fire from the east.
Captain Johnson’s22 company then moved through Lewin’s and secured Parks unopposed. By 3.15 it had cleared the main spurs of Parks, and Lieutenant Mortimer’s23 platoon had moved north along the spur leading to Collins Highway ridge and there came under heavy fire, one man being killed and Mortimer and two others wounded – the heaviest losses in a
platoon of this battalion on that day. Gooden’s company, with the support of mortars, pressed on, and Lieutenant T. C. Derrick’s platoon established itself on dominating ground on a southern spur of Lyons. At the end of the day the 2/48th had a company on Collins Highway ridge, another astride Anzac Highway, another on Parks and another on Finch. It had counted 24 Japanese dead, and had lost 2 killed and 9 wounded.
At 5 p.m. Whitehead, who had landed at midday, ordered that the 2/48th next day should take Lyons, and the 2/24th, coming in on the left, should take Sturt and Wills. The 2/24th had begun landing, on Red Beach, at 9.20 a.m., and had remained in reserve until late in the afternoon, when Warfe received orders to move north along Anzac Highway. The eager Warfe had been irked by the inactivity of his unit, but his repeated requests for a more active role had brought from Whitehead always the same reply: “Just wait a little, you’ll get plenty later.” In the gathering darkness Warfe, after reconnaissance, moved two companies forward to comfortable dry ground where they could have a good night and a short approach march next day.
By nightfall the brigade held an area 2,800 yards wide at the base and up to 2,000 yards in depth. On the left the objectives had been reached, but to the east Milko, which was among the objectives, was still in the hands of the enemy.
The rear areas were still under fire from snipers. In the afternoon of the 1st a patrol of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, the principal unit of the beach group, clashed with parties of Japanese near Burke Highway, and during the first night snipers or shell fire wounded six members of the battalion.
Meanwhile the beach had been a scene of strenuous and often frustrating effort. By 10 a.m. three LSTs had beached and thrown out pontoon causeways to connect with the solid ground. Later four others beached, but the receding tide prevented their pontoons from reaching the shore and unloading had to be delayed. The difficulty of developing the beach area was described in stark detail by Major Foreman:
From the start the beach development was hampered by the very narrow area available between the dune-line and the road, and the terrific cratering in this small space and on the east side of the road. At high water there was no beach at all and at low water the beach, although 500 yards to 600 yards wide, was entirely useless as it consisted of thick black mud. The whole length of the beaches was faced from seaward with a sheer clay wall approximately 8 feet high; behind this was a 3-foot deep drain, then a space varying from 10 to 30 feet in width; a further drain approximately 3 feet deep, the road (of about 16 feet available width), another 3-foot deep drain, and then rising slopes of soft clay heavily pitted with water-filled craters. The road was also extensively cratered. The soil was of a thick greasy clay with the water table about one foot to 18 inches below the natural surface of the narrow coastal strip. Mechanical equipment was successfully landed from LCMs but for anything but the lightest cut quickly bogged itself down. Every dozer which attacked the clay wall bogged hopelessly and had to be dragged out by other mechanical equipment.24
The tracked vehicles quickly made the mesh useless, but fortunately there was much round and sawn timber stacked on the beach and corduroy tracks were substituted. None of the LSTs could be refloated on the afternoon tide. It had been hoped to have field guns in action on the island three hours after the landing, but unloading was so difficult that none was fired until 2.50 p.m. In the first 24 hours, however, 1,562 tons of stores and equipment were unloaded.
On the high tide of the night of the 1st–2nd May five more LSTs beached beside the stranded ones, but did not drive so far inshore. Next day causeways were swung out to them. By 8 a.m. on the 3rd a total of 2,640 tons had been landed, and by 9.20 that day the unloading of the five LSTs of the later group was complete;25 that morning, on the high tide and with the help of a wash created by a destroyer and some motor torpedo boats, these five were retracted, but the seven LSTs of the first group could not get off until the next spring tides on 11th and 12th May.
By 4th May an American Naval Construction Battalion had built a short pontoon pier at which LCTs and LCMs were unloaded, and a longer pontoon pier at which the remaining LSTs were unloaded. The repair of the big south pier was begun on the 1st, but there were three main gaps of 140, 50 and 35 feet, and the pier was not complete until the 4th.
The Netherlands Indies Civil Affairs unit established itself ashore on 1st May. By the end of that day it had 1,000 civilian refugees in its compound, by the end of the fifth day 5,000, and by the end of the seventh day 7,000. Many civilians were wounded by the bombardment on the 1st, so many that Australian doctors had to help the NICA medical staff to attend them.
In the conditions encountered on Tarakan the demand for engineers to support the infantry and tanks was exceptional. They were needed to lift mines, disarm booby-traps, blow up tunnels and lay corduroy on the roads. One section of engineers was allotted to each battalion, and soon one section to each troop of tanks, a half section to the Pioneers, and a half section to the 2/4th Commando Squadron. Until the other two field companies allotted to the operation arrived this left only five sections of the 2/13th Field Company for other tasks.
Early on the morning of the 2nd Captain Wilton’s26 company of the 2/23rd on the right occupied Milko against little opposition. Simmons’ company pushed on parallel to Burke Highway and reached the Lingkas Track. By 4 p.m. they had advanced a further 800 yards and were under sniper fire. The next company to the left, advancing from Pages, found the enemy to be in strength on the higher slopes of Hospital Spur in a position that included pill-boxes, tunnels and many weapon-pits.
That morning the 2/48th Battalion swiftly secured Lyons. By 6.45 a.m. Lieutenant Burke’s27 platoon had taken the southern knoll and by 9 a.m. the leading troops were on the summit A platoon patrolling towards Burke Highway encountered an enemy post on a razor-back near the barracks. This was mortared and then attacked with flame-throwers, whereupon the enemy fled east across the road, leaving three dead.
The 2/24th Battalion, which had now come in on the left, began to advance towards Sturt and Wills at 7.30 a.m. on the 2nd. Captain Eldridge’s28 and Captain Travis’29 companies led with tanks in support. At 8 a.m. aircraft attacked Sturt and Wills but not accurately; the artillery shelled the hills from 8 a.m. and six minutes later the leading companies crossed the start-line on Collins Highway. By 9 a.m. Eldridge’s had taken Sturt, where eight Japanese were killed, and by 11 a.m. were advancing towards Frank which they also took – a long and swift advance. Travis’ company on the left met stiffer opposition. It reached the summit of Wills at 8.15 but then encountered Japanese in trenches, concrete pillboxes and underground bunkers. One platoon commander, Lieutenant Scott,30 was wounded when leading his men forward. Sergeant Wallis31 reorganised the platoon and pressed on against intense fire, successfully assaulting a concrete pill-box, a large bunker and trench systems. When a section commander was wounded Private Rodwell32 deployed the section and charged a pill-box which he silenced by firing his Bren through a slit.
By 8.35 a.m. the position at the south end of Wills was in the hands of the attackers except for one big bunker protected against grenading by a system of deep slit trenches. At 11.10 a.m., while intense small arms fire was poured at all the slits, Lieutenant Freame33 moved out with a flame-thrower to a slit at the north-west side of the bunker and fired a long burst of flame into it. He then did the same at a slit on the west side whence a grenade was thrown but without harming him. The bunker then exploded and collapsed. (The ammunition stored in this bunker continued to burn for four days.)
When Warfe learnt what was happening he went forward to see whether Eldridge’s company could move round Sturt to help with Wills. Warfe himself swiftly probed forward taking a patrol consisting of Eldridge and two men. About 400 yards out they found that they were in a minefield, from which they cautiously extricated themselves. Warfe now ordered Eldridge’s company to continue the advance toward the airstrip through Essex and Captain Catherall’s34 to join them. In this advance one Japanese was killed and one captured. The map was found to be inaccurate and the troops had to move by compass, pacing the distances. At dusk the leading company was within several hundred yards of Essex. After dark
Catherall’s company joined them. The prisoner, a warrant-officer, was hurried back in the dark through about 3,000 yards of jungle in which Japanese were quite likely to be encountered. The two volunteers who escorted him delivered him at battalion headquarters about 8 p.m.
Meanwhile at 4 p.m. Captain Macfarlane’s35 company began to move along the Anzac Highway towards the airfield. The road was thickly mined and covered by the fire of machine-guns on the western tip of Peningkibaru ridge. The area was bombarded by artillery and at dusk two platoons advanced at the side of the road waist deep in foul water and mud. The Japanese withdrew under cover of machine-gun fire.
That night Warfe ordered Catherall to move at 11 p.m. on to a feature a few hundred yards east of Essex. The company reached it unopposed.
An Auster aircraft of No. 16 Air Observation Post Flight was landed on a defective airstrip on the 2nd, but when it was taking off again it crashed. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant McIntyre,36 and the Air Liaison Officer, Captain Ket,37 were both injured, Ket fatally.38
Warfe issued orders for an attack on the airstrip next day; at 6 a.m. Travis’ company would advance with, under command, a troop of tanks, a section of machine-guns and three 3-inch mortars. Thus by 6.45 on the morning of the 3rd this company had passed through the forward troops on the left, but it soon came under fierce fire from machine-guns and a 25-mm gun (which, when captured later, was found to have fired 11,000 rounds).
As the advance continued, with one platoon on the right of the road and one on the left, the canal on the left was flooded with oil and electrically set on fire. The platoon on that side of the road crossed the road to assault the airstrip. The tanks’ advance had been halted by mines and the infantry patrols, seeking alternative lines of advance, encountered only swamps. At 8.45 Warfe ordered Catherall and Eldridge to move down the western slopes of Essex, Eldridge’s company to link with Travis’ and the other to exploit towards the eastern end of the strip. Catherall, checked by machine-gun fire, attacked and captured the weapon. Eldridge’s company passed through and continued towards the airstrip ridge.
Meanwhile Travis moved forward of the tanks supporting his company and in the face of heavy machine-gun fire directed the tank fire at the enemy pill-boxes, neutralising them. The engineers cleared the minefields and the final assault on the ridge was led by Travis in the face of fire from 20-mm guns and snipers. Travis’ and Eldridge’s companies linked on the ridge at 3.30.
During this attack Japanese fire was continually directed on the Anzac Highway from farther east on Peningkibaru making the road untenable. Patrols from Macfarlane’s company made contact with the enemy and the company was ordered to attack at 1 p.m. Lieutenant Amiet’s39 platoon attacked the first bunker of a defensive system which was later found to include more than 250 yards of communication trenches connecting eight bunkers and many foxholes, sited on a razor-backed ridge. Immediately two men were killed and one fatally wounded. Brens were quickly sited in an endeavour to silence the enemy fire and a flame-thrower attack was pressed home, causing the enemy to retreat along a deep communication trench. Amiet’s platoon gained the bunker knoll, and then Lieutenant W. G. Stretch’s passed through. The only feasible line of attack followed the trench along the razor-back. Stretch adopted a bold plan: he led his Owen gunners forward, followed by the Brens and, directing withering fire, made a rapid and successful advance. Private Farmer,40 his Bren on his hip, cleaned out a bunker and pushed forward. His Bren was shot from his grip but, though his hand was wounded and useless, he left the fighting only when a badly wounded comrade needed assisting to the rear. The razor-back narrowed to a one-man front, but Stretch still advanced, having weapons passed forward along the line. Stoppages were occurring when ammunition was fouled in oily ditches and men were stripping and cleaning guns under enemy fire. Ammunition ran out when the position was gained. The shouts for ammunition were correctly interpreted by the Japanese and they made a determined counter-attack which was held by Stretch alone while Corporal King,41 a stretcher bearer, attended and recovered the wounded. Captain Macfarlane was evacuated here and Captain E. J. Shattock took command.
It was imperative that the strip be secured that day and at 4.38 p.m. Warfe ordered Eldridge to take Rippon overlooking it from the north. There was just time before dark to launch an attack diagonally across the east end of the airfield in open formation, reach the far side, re-form and move through jungle on to Rippon. One of the men later described the attack:
There was no suitable forming-up place due to the terrain so the company doubled through the defile where the road passed through the dispersal bays, and fanned out into their open platoon formations at the double and then on the commander’s arm signal continued the attack. However the attack had progressed about 50 yards when the right forward platoon (14 Platoon, Lt Walker42) had to cross the road which traversed the aerodrome diagonally. As the platoon crossed the road there were two enormous explosions and the platoon was blotted out by earth, dust and smoke. Great wooden beams about 15 feet long floated into the air, splintered and scattered everywhere. 1 saw one of these beams floating
horizontally about 10 feet in the air and up with it one of our company also in the horizontal. That man lives today. When everything subsided there were only about 5 of the platoon left on their feet. The left forward platoon was ordered to continue the attack and the reserve platoon swung in behind them. 14 Pl had suffered from the Japanese exploding two large depth charges under the road and in their midst. The platoon commander, Lt Walker, got the remnants to their feet and continued, conforming to the rate of advance of the left forward platoon. Then the company ran into a belt of cross-fire from about 6 machine-guns from the far side of the aerodrome and a 75-mm gun fired at us from up the road. The shells were landing just behind us but creeping down. As the company was going to ground Sgt Cooke43 and the company commander each raced through the forward platoons and led them into the dispersal bays on the far side. Unfortunately at this stage the company commander was shot in the head.
The company was still under heavy cross-fire and was being shelled point-blank by a 75-mm gun. Warfe, who was watching from the ridge above the strip, had seen with horror the leading platoon disappear in the big explosion. Darkness was descending and the company was completely pinned down. Sergeant Cooke assisted gallantly in organising a withdrawal and bringing out the wounded and dead. Lieutenant Gray44 had now assumed command of the company.
On the night of the 2nd–3rd small enemy parties had probed the 2/48th’s area and some were killed. On 3rd May the battalion sent out several patrols. Lieutenant Collier’s45 platoon reconnoitred Peter, found tracks, and on one of them had a sharp fight in which Collier and two others were wounded, Collier mortally. Sergeant Brock46 took over and organised a withdrawal which was covered by Lance-Corporal Corcoran47 who stood on the track and fired until all but he had gone back. Lieutenant J. A. R. Buckley’s platoon moved north-east towards Sykes and became heavily engaged with a strong enemy group who followed up as the Australians withdrew.
On 3rd May the 2/23rd Battalion found District VI empty; an English-speaking native said that the Japanese had abandoned it three days before. Patrols were fired on from Tarakan Hill, and in the afternoon, while field and naval guns bombarded this hill, Captain Wilton’s company attacked but was held up by sharp cross fire; several were hit including the leading platoon’s commander, Lieutenant Edwards.48 The company withdrew.
Platoons of one company thrust at Hospital Spur from the east and south but without success. When the first platoon attacked the Japanese charged down the spur with fixed bayonets. They were repulsed and 12 to 15 were killed, but the Australians were withdrawn. On the left
another company was held up by a pill-box near Burke Highway. A flame-thrower was forward but could not be brought into range.
On the 4th patrols of the 2/23rd found Burke Ridge unoccupied. An attack by infantry and tanks on Hospital Spur was planned but it was found that the enemy had abandoned it, leaving 13 dead. On the right patrols moved through Pamusian but, to the north-east, met heavy fire, five being hit including Lieutenant Greer49 who was killed.
Brigadier Whitehead had decided to replace the 2/23rd with the 2/3rd Pioneers and the 2/4th Commando Squadron, which had now arrived from Sadau Island, and send the 2/23rd to the left to help the 2/24th. The commando squadron was given the task of taking Tarakan Hill while the Pioneers defended the eastern area.
Thus the 2/23rd, after four days of hard fighting, set out towards more hard fighting in another sector. It had secured the beach and harbour areas and the country between Burke Highway and Pamusian was clear of the enemy. It had taken part of the eastern section of the town of Tarakan. The battalion had lost 9 killed and 31 wounded, some mortally; 90 Japanese dead had been counted.
At 4 p.m. on 3rd May the commando squadron had relieved the right-hand company of the 2/23rd on a ridge overlooking Tarakan Hill, an isolated, thickly-timbered feature commanding the lower country round about for 1,000 yards in all directions. Captain Haigh50 planned an attack in which one troop would gain a firm base on the slopes of Tarakan Hill and a second would pass through and secure the remainder of the hill. At 9.30 a.m. on the 4th, after a naval and air bombardment, Captain Nicolay’s51 “C” Troop began to advance and by 10.15 was in a ditch that formed the start-line. Thence the leading section sprinted forward into heavy fire, gaining some protection from old concrete buildings. Soon Lieutenant Eley,52 commanding this section, had been killed and seven others killed or wounded. Trooper O’Regan53 took control, organised the withdrawal of the section to cover, and then went forward to help Lance-Corporal Moss54 who had been temporarily blinded. O’Regan himself was now hit but managed to lead Moss back, and, after having his own wounds dressed, gave the squadron commander an account of what had happened. Meanwhile Sergeant Curtin55 of the RAP had dashed forward to Eley, and, finding him dead, went, still under fire, to a wounded man lying within 20 feet of the enemy post. This man died while
Curtin was looking after him. Curtin went on attending to the wounded until all were carried in.
Lieutenant Wightman’s56 section now advanced but it too was pinned down by fire, and the troop found itself lying out under fire from a well-concealed system of pill-boxes, dugouts and tunnels. Nicolay called for tanks to deal with three tunnels which had been pin-pointed. Lieutenant Burton’s57 troop was sent in on the right flank immediately and was pinned down almost at once. Captain G. C. Hart’s troop was then sent in very wide on the right flank of Burton’s and reached the crest of Tarakan Hill unopposed, but was then pinned down by mortar and machine-gun fire. The leading section lost their commander, Lieutenant F. W. McKittrick, and two others wounded, all by the same mortar bomb.
An hour later three tanks were forward and from 50 yards poured shells and bullets into the mouths of the tunnels. This, plus the pressure from the two commando troops, forced the Japanese out and Wightman’s section advanced and took the forward slopes of the hill. The squadron now commanded three-quarters of the high ground; the remainder was dominated by two concrete pill-boxes 140 yards forward of the leading troops. Patrols knocked out both of these, one being silenced by Trooper Nugent58 with a Pita, but rifle fire from well-concealed positions prevented the attackers from occupying the ground and Hart withdrew the forward sections to his own locality; 100 yards of the crest of the hill though cleared of the enemy was still unoccupied by the Australians.
That night (4th–5th) small parties of Japanese raiders armed with grenades, fused 75-mm shells, and spears tried to penetrate the perimeter but all were driven off; four Japanese were killed, but the squadron’s medical officer, Captain Thomas,59 and a trooper were wounded. Next morning efforts to occupy the eastern end of the hill were frustrated by snipers until the afternoon, when, about 6 p.m., Lieutenant Wilson’s60 section patrolled completely around the slopes of Tarakan Hill sealing off the many Japanese who remained in the tunnels that honeycombed the hill, their entrances hidden by undergrowth. One by one the Pioneers blew up the entrances of these caves with gelignite leaving the occupants to die; no other course was effective against an enemy who would not surrender.
The 2/48th probed forward on the 4th, moved on to Evans and dug in on its southern spur.
Shattock’s company of the 2/24th was ordered to maintain pressure on Peningkibaru with the support of tanks. At 6.5 a.m. on the 4th Peningkibaru was heavily bombarded by mortars, tank howitzers and
machine-guns. The company attacked and gained the position in time to repel the Japanese who had withdrawn during the barrage and now tried to regain their positions. Shattock then advanced to Frank and found it unoccupied. Peningkibaru was a stronghold. A tunnel in the hillside contained 100 bunks and had evidently housed a headquarters. It contained much equipment. A very accurate Dutch map was found and was later reproduced and distributed. Twenty-four Japanese were killed here and Shattock’s company lost 5 killed and 13 wounded.
At 9.30 a.m. that day Warfe arranged another attack on Rippon, again by the company that had been so severely handled there the previous afternoon; but an hour before the attack was to go in the enemy shelled the company, hitting six men, and the attack was cancelled in favour of patrolling the area. Here yet another company commander – Captain Catherall – was wounded.
In the centre Colonel Ainslie of the 2/48th ordered Captain Gooden’s company on 5th May to by-pass Evans and, with a troop of tanks, to clear the road north to Otway and Sykes. The company moved out at 9 a.m. with one platoon and the tanks on the road, another pressing against Evans to the east, and the third in reserve on the road; artillery and mortars harassed Sykes and Otway. As the Australians advanced the Japanese laid booby-traps and mines ahead of them and hurled 75-mm shells at the tanks but without causing damage. Lieutenant Derrick’s platoon to the east completely cleared Evans and rejoined the company. It then was sent out on a wide encircling move and cleared Otway while the tanks and other infantry fired from the south. In the afternoon Lieutenant Reed’s61 platoon passed through and came under fire from Sykes.
On the morning of the 6th a patrol reported about 30 Japanese forward of Sykes, and at 8 a.m. Captain Johnson’s company took over and advanced with the tanks, cautiously, since the road ran along a cutting which, on one side, was completely dominated by Sykes – a precipitous hill with a false crest – and on the other fell away steeply “allowing no deployment whatsoever”. At the South-east point of Sykes the leading platoon came under sharp fire and the Japanese hurled a shower of grenades from above and bowled 75-mm shells down at the tanks. This platoon – Sergeant Pope62 – carried on the fight here while another moved round on the right and reached a position just east of the enemy and only about 100 yards from Pope. Thereupon Pope’s platoon resolutely clambered up the slope under small arms fire and grenades, cleared the false crest, killing 8 to 10, and reached the summit, but not without losing six men killed.
The Japanese counter-attacked and forced the survivors in this platoon off the crest, but they advanced again to the top, led by Pope who, though twice wounded, fought on until hit a third time. When Pope was carried
out Lieutenant Allen,63 though he too had been wounded, took command and reorganised. At the end of the day three platoons under Gooden securely held Sykes – the strongest position yet encountered by the 2/48th on Tarakan.
In the 2/24th’s area on 5th May patrols had reported that only rifle fire was now coming from Rippon which had been so strongly held the day before, and by 3.30 p.m. two companies were on the feature. About 6 p.m. Warfe moved his headquarters to the airstrip and the Australian flag and the battalion’s flag were hoisted over it. Having captured the airfield the 26th Brigade Group had accomplished its main task, but the Japanese still held a line of strongposts on high ground above the town and airfield.