Chapter 21: The Seizure of Balikpapan
WHILE the 9th Division was finishing its task in north Borneo, the 7th was preparing for the attack on Balikpapan, the last large-scale Allied operation of the six years’ war. The re-conquest of Luzon was now virtually completed; organised resistance had ceased on Okinawa; for nearly three months United States aircraft had been raining explosive and incendiary bombs on the major cities of Japan; in Burma, Rangoon had fallen on 3rd May.
Balikpapan was distant 2,500 miles and more from Rangoon and Okinawa, and was 1,200 miles south of Manila. Even as early as April General Blamey could see no justification for attacking Balikpapan, but the operation had been ordered by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and the Australian Prime Minister, after having informed General MacArthur of General Blamey’s opinion, had not objected.
Balikpapan, which, after Palembang in Sumatra, was the most productive oil port in east Asia, was built round the eastern headland of Balikpapan Bay. The port, with its seven piers and its warehouses, lay within the bay; the European suburb of Klandasan faced the open sea; on the steep-sided ridge in between, forming the backbone of the headland, towered the cracking plant and about 40 storage tanks. The oil was piped to the Balikpapan refinery from Sambodja and Sangasanga, 25 and 55 miles to the north-east respectively, and, in peace, oil was shipped to Balikpapan also from Java, Tarakan and Ceram. Before the war Balik-papan exported about 1,800,000 tons of cargo a year, almost all of it fuel oil and other petroleum products.
The airfields were to the east of the town on the narrow coastal plains: at Sepinggang, five miles from Balikpapan, and Manggar, about 12 miles away. The hills rose steeply from the coast to about 700 feet in the area to be covered by the troops. The country was open for several miles round Balikpapan, but farther inland, and several miles to the north along the coast, the jungle began. There was a motor road along the shore and thence inland to Sambodja, an uncompleted road to Samarinda, and a track to Bandjermasin. The Australian staffs named the coast road the Vasey Highway and the Samarinda Road the Milford Highway, and, as at Tarakan, they gave names to every hilltop in the area, thus greatly simplifying signalling, written and oral orders, and reports by reducing the use of map references.
The Japanese had assembled a fairly large force of troops and civilian workers of several nationalities in the Balikpapan–Samarinda area. In June it was estimated that there were, round Balikpapan, about 3,900 troops, of whom 1,500 were in mobile units and 2,400 in anti-aircraft, air force and base units; also 1,100 Japanese workers, 2,400 Indonesians
and 1,000 Formosans. Round Samarinda there were believed to be about 1,500 troops, plus possibly a battalion recently arrived from Tarakan. Experience had taught that, in estimating the strength of the enemy’s resistance, every Japanese and Formosan, whether in a fighting unit, base unit or a civilian labour group, had to be regarded as a fighting man.
It was known that at least 18 coast-defence guns were mounted round Balikpapan, principally on the ridges overlooking the sea, and there were at least 26 heavy dual-purpose and 78 medium and light anti-aircraft guns. Off shore between Klandasan and Manggar rows of stout poles had
been driven into the bed of the sea and horizontally braced with timber and protected with barbed wire. An almost continuous anti-tank ditch from 12 to 14 feet wide lay above the beach from Stalkudo to Sepinggang, and extensive trench systems with many tunnel openings had been detected on the ridges overlooking Klandasan. There were also many concrete strong-posts and a continuous line of bunkers along the fringe of the beach. The area was as strongly fortified as any that the Australians had encountered anywhere in the war. Indeed Air Vice-Marshal Bostock,1 who was in control of air support of the landing, in a letter to the Prime Minister, warned him that these carefully-prepared defences might lead to AIF casualties comparable with those at the landing on Gallipoli.
The enemy appeared to have established his main defences on the slopes overlooking the beaches from Klandasan to Stalkudo. The Australian staffs considered that the Japanese would try to contain the invaders within their beach-head area as long as they could and then withdraw inland and either south to Bandjermasin or overland to Bintulu in Sarawak. It was expected that the enemy would direct burning oil down
on to the beach unless the oil tanks were destroyed in the preliminary bombardment.
As mentioned, the decision to employ the 7th Division instead of the 9th at Balikpapan was not made until 17th April, when GHQ authorised the movement of the division less a brigade from Australia to Morotai, where, it was expected, the concentration of the force would be complete by 16th June. The 7th Division like the 9th had had a long period of training in combined operations.
On 30th April GHQ issued a staff study which said that the preparatory naval and air bombardment would destroy enemy defences and any oil tanks whose contents might be used in the defence; in the next stage a landing would be made with the object of destroying the garrison and seizing the port and airfields; in the final stage the remaining enemy forces were to be destroyed, the NEI Government re-established, and the remaining oil-producing and oil-processing installations protected. On 7th May the date of the landing was fixed at 28th June, but the delay in beginning the Brunei Bay operation caused a corresponding postponement of the landing at Balikpapan, and on 8th May this was fixed at 10th July. Nine days later, however, GHQ decided that, because of the expected concentration of the force at Morotai by 19th June, the date of the landing would be 1st July. GHQ provided 25 LSTs, in addition to ships already allotted, to hurry units from Cairns to Morotai.
The 7th Division was now going into action for the first time since it had been withdrawn from the Ramu Valley operations early in 1944. This would be its first opposed landing, the first operation since Syria in 1941 in which it would have a full array of supporting weapons, and the first operation in which it had fought as a complete formation. The division’s commander, Major-General E. J. Milford, had joined it in July 1944. Milford had led the 5th Division in the final operations round Salamaua and later had been chief of staff of New Guinea Force. He was a firm leader, learned and shrewd. Primarily a gunner, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity presented by this relatively open country to use artillery. All his brigade commanders and all but two of the infantry battalion commanders had led their formations or units in the Ramu Valley.
Although it was a tried and experienced division it now contained, in the infantry, a fairly high percentage of subalterns who had come from disbanded artillery and other units and had not been in action before. Consequently, when briefing began, great emphasis was placed on the need to push on and gain ground.
Major-General Milford and his staff had begun planning the operation on 26th April and by 5th May Milford had decided to make an assault on a two-brigade front between the Klandasan Besar River and Klandasan. The infantry brigadiers, F. 0. Chilton of the 18th and I. N. Dougherty of the 21st, were not informed about the operation until 11th May, and then in great secrecy. Milford told them what resources were likely to
be available and that the object was to capture the town and port area. He asked the brigadiers to study the problem independently and suggest an outline plan. They studied the maps and models at divisional headquarters on the Atherton Tableland and on 18th May, in conference with Milford, each said that he favoured making the landing at Klandasan and not farther east. Milford told them that that was his plan and, after arriving at it, he had examined the appreciation already made by the 9th Division and discovered that it also had favoured Klandasan. On Chilton’s representations Milford agreed to make the assault 1,000 yards east of where he had originally intended.
Three possible landing places had been considered: Manggar, Seping-gang and Klandasan, the only places where the water was deep enough, the beach long enough and the approaches suitable. Klandasan was chosen despite the fact that the minesweepers would have to operate under the enemy’s coast guns and the supporting warships would have to stand farther off shore than otherwise, and that the landing would be made in the area of the enemy’s strongest defences.
The following reasons in favour of landing at Klandasan were later set out in the divisional report:
(a) A successful assault against the strongest positions would considerably reduce the duration of the campaign and it was thereby hoped that casualties, which reach their highest in a long drawn out campaign which becomes a war of attrition, would be substantially reduced;
(b) The greatest fire support is required to overcome the position of greatest strength and this condition would be fulfilled on Fox Day;
(c) By attacking the centre of the enemy’s defences some degree of disorganisation should result which might continue for some days if the attack were pressed with vigour;
Japanese reaction is generally slow and it was hoped to capture the vital ground commanding the harbour before he recovered from the initial bombardment;
(d) The early capture of Balikpapan Bay would ease the problem of supply over the beach and would be a safeguard against unfavourable weather;
(e) A higher degree of concentration of both fire power and man power could be effected;
(f) The full power of the force would be quickly deployed as opposed to the narrow front imposed by a coastwise advance;
(g) Defences between Balikpapan and Manggar were sited to face the East and could more readily be overcome by an advance from the West;
(h) Fewer engineering tasks of bridging and communications would be met on the vital first day;
(i) The location of defences suggested that the enemy considered a landing at Klandasan would be too hazardous an undertaking and that tactical surprise (strategic surprise was not possible with the preliminary bombardment and minesweeping) might be achieved.2
In short, as Milford wrote later, “why land up the coast and have to fight miles through jungle, which suits the enemy, when you can go
straight in under heavy supporting fire, which the enemy can’t stand, in comparatively open and favourable country”.
Efforts were made to give an impression that the landing would be made at Manggar. This was done by spreading rumours, landing a reconnaissance party in that area, and demolishing some underwater obstacles at both Manggar and Sepinggang at the same time as the obstacles were breached at Klandasan.
The senior naval commander for the Balikpapan operation was Vice-Admiral Barbey, who was designated Commander of the Balikpapan Attack Force; under him Rear-Admiral Albert G. Noble commanded the attack group and Rear-Admiral Ralph S. Riggs the cruiser covering group. On 25th May the United States naval planning team arrived at Morotai and explained that they preferred a landing about Sepinggang or even farther east where their ships could stand in closer and also be away from the Japanese coast-defence guns. The leader of the naval team told Milford that the more he looked at the divisional plan the less he liked it, and that he feared that this might prove the first unsuccessful landing in the South-West Pacific.
I indicated (wrote Milford in his notebook) landing farther E was not acceptable, too far from vital town and would mean we would be restricted to advance along narrow coastal strip with enemy well prepared. The efficiency of the gun defences is doubtful and they can be blinded by smoke if very active. The difficulty is not getting the landing waves ashore but in landing heavy equipment and stores since beaches may be vulnerable to shelling.
Finally the naval team agreed to put the division ashore wherever it wished. But when Admiral Noble arrived at divisional headquarters on 28th May he expressed dislike for the choice of Klandasan with its defending guns and left a copy of a paper on the subject that he had submitted to General Morshead. Morshead, however, ruled in favour of Milford’s plan.
At this stage Milford urged that the 10,500 troops of the RAAF who were to be landed by the fifteenth day after the landing be reduced by 7,000 and thus enough ships made available to include a third brigade in the assault convoy. On 31st May GHQ agreed to a request by Morshead that the third brigade be included.
Finally the plan provided for the employment of the following forces in the assault:
|7th Base Sub-Area||4,961|
|US and NEI units||2,061|
The multitude of specialist units and detachments which existed at this stage of the war is illustrated by the order of battle of the 7th Division and its supporting forces. This list contains the names of 247 headquarters,
units or detachments (including 21 in the 2nd Beach Group and 67 in the 7th Base Sub-Area). Among the main units were:
2/7th Cavalry Regiment
2/4th, 2/5th and 2/6th Field Regiments; 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment
2/4th, 2/5th, 2/6th, 2/9th Field Companies, 2/25th Field Park Company
18th Brigade (2/9th, 2/10th, 2/12th Battalions)
21st Brigade (2/14th, 2/16th, 2/27th Battalions)
25th Brigade (2/25th, 2/31st, 2/33rd Battalions)
2/1st Pioneer Battalion, 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion
Corps and RAAF Units:
1st Armoured Regiment, less a squadron
2/1st Composite Anti-Aircraft Regiment
Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6 Airfield Construction Squadrons, RAAF
2nd Beach Group:
2/11th Field Company
2/2nd Pioneer Battalion
US and NEI Units:
727th Amphibious Tractor Battalion less one company
One boat company, 593rd EBSR
One company 672nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion
One company 1st NEI Battalion.
By this final stage of the war the Intelligence and allied organisations within the American and Australian forces had become particularly varied, numerous and specialised. Those represented on the 7th Division’s staff in the Balikpapan operation included:
Geological engineer Intelligence
NEFIS – Netherlands Expeditionary Forces Intelligence Service
NICA – Netherlands Indies Civil Administration
RAAF and USAAF Intelligence
US Naval Intelligence
AIB – Allied Intelligence Bureau
SRD – Services Reconnaissance Department
FELO – Far Eastern Liaison Office
SI – Secret Intelligence
CIC – Counter Intelligence Corps
FSS – Field Security Section
FSS (EE) – Field Security Section (Enemy Equipment)
ATIS – Allied Translator and Interpreter Section
AAPI Group – Australian Army Photographic Interpretation Group
MEIU – Mobile Explosive Intelligence Unit
US naval ordnance
RAN enemy equipment.
The armoured force included two squadrons of Matilda tanks, one troop of Frogs (flame-throwing tanks), one troop of tankdozers, and one bridge-laying tank. It was planned to use the tanks along roads in the following formation: gun tank, gun tank, Frog tank, Frog tank, gun tank, Frog tank. When opposition was encountered the gun tanks would engage
it from the flanks while the Frogs advanced to attack frontally; the Frogs normally opened fire at ranges between 15 and 30 yards.
Changes of plan, the late inclusion of a third brigade, the distance of Morotai from north Queensland, and the inclusion in the force of many small units not under the command of the 7th Division complicated planning. The divisional headquarters had to be divided into three sections; one at Morotai engaged in planning, another at Morotai administering the troops as they arrived from Australia, and a third in Australia sending the units forward. Brigade and battalion headquarters had also to split into three similar echelons. That the planning was done swiftly and well was evidence of the high standard of staff work that had been attained at all levels after nearly six years of war.
The unit planning teams of the two leading brigades did not arrive at Morotai until 13th June, only eight days before the troops embarked for Balikpapan. On 14th June, with the landing only a fortnight away, the brigade commanders were informed in a letter from Milford’s GSO1, Lieut-Colonel Wilmoth,3 that ten items of ammunition would be in short supply during the early stages of the operation. In particular, there would, until 16th July, be only 30,000 high-explosive 3-inch mortar bombs, 4,400 high-explosive 4.2-inch mortar bombs, and tank ammunition would have to be conserved.
Dougherty, who, with Chilton, had long discussed the value of “saturation” mortar bombardment as a means of saving the lives of their troops and had preached to the troops the need for generous mortar fire, immediately wrote to Milford a letter in the course of which he said:
I do consider it criminal that Australians of any division should be asked, at this stage of the war, to go into what might well be a difficult operation, with less ammunition than that which is considered necessary by their commanders.
He asked to be paraded to General Morshead. On the 16th, however, Milford discussed the matter with Dougherty, who decided that the general had pressed similar views and no good purpose would be served by being paraded.
Before and after the landing several parties were put ashore round Balikpapan to gain information. Thus on 20th March 1945 Major Stott4 and three others had been landed from submarines near Balikpapan to obtain Intelligence and extract natives for interrogation. On 22nd March Captain Morton5 was landed from a submarine in the same area. He found that the presence of Stott’s party was known to the enemy and was told that Stott had been captured or killed. Morton took command and led the party for six weeks, being constantly pursued. The survivors were evacuated by a prahu and a Catalina on 3rd May.
Captain R. K. McLaren, an outstanding guerilla leader who, having escaped from captivity on Borneo, had served with guerilla forces on Mindanao for two years, led a party of five who were dropped by parachute into a village 20 miles north-west of Balikpapan on 30th June to find out whether the Japanese, when attacked, would withdraw towards Samarinda or round the bay towards Bandjermasin. One man was injured while landing and the storepedoes containing equipment and food were captured, but the party carried on. It was ambushed on 3rd July and one man was captured. McLaren took the injured man to safety and continued his task. On 6th July he extracted his party in native craft and reported to the 7th Division.
On 3rd July Captain Prentice, who had already led pre-invasion parties on Tarakan and in the Brunei Bay area, was landed with five others 35 miles west of Samarinda. They remained there until 12th August, sent useful information to the 7th Division, organised guerillas and had several successful engagements with the enemy.
The number of mines that had been laid in the sea round Balikpapan, the large area covered, and the fact that many were magnetic mines, made it necessary to begin sweeping more than two weeks before the landing, and before this could be done it was desirable to subdue the powerful array of coast and anti-aircraft guns on the high ground overlooking the minefields, which included mines laid by the Dutch in 1941, mines laid by the Japanese, and mines dropped by Allied aircraft. Since the Tarakan airfield would not be ready in time Air Vice-Marshal Bostock arranged that fighter aircraft of the American Thirteenth Air Force based on Sanga Sanga Island in the Sulu Archipelago would cover the minesweepers. All the heavy bombers of the RAAF and Thirteenth Air Force and a wing from the Fifth Air Force were made available to help subdue the enemy’s defences. These bombers operated from Morotai, Zamboanga, Tawitawi, and Palawan. In addition, to ensure continuous fighter cover, particularly on the day before the landing and two days afterwards, a division of American escort carriers was made available.
The intensive bombing of the enemy defences was begun 20 days before the landing. Four days later the minesweepers arrived. During the next seven days, while waters well off shore were being swept, the supporting warships remained more than 12,000 yards from the coast and the minesweepers had a difficult time. Two were damaged by the detonation of Allied mines and one of these had to be sunk; three were hit by enemy gunfire. At this stage “the prospects of sweeping the area essential for the landing in the remaining time to meet the target date seemed somewhat doubtful”.6 On 24th June, however, when supporting destroyers came closer inshore and the air bombardment, by about 100 aircraft a day, began to make itself felt, the defenders’ fire grew weaker and did not greatly hamper the minesweepers, though on 26th and 27th June two were sunk and one damaged by mine detonations.
On the 25th the American underwater demolition teams, working sometimes under heavy gunfire, began the finding and breaching of the underwater obstacles. Gaps of 800 yards each were blown in the Manggar and Manggar Kechil obstacles and a gap of 1,100 yards in the Klandasan obstacle.
From 4th June onwards daily air attacks had been made on the Japanese guns, on storage tanks whose oil might be used for defence and on the airfields. From 11th June the attacks were intensified and were concentrated on the gun positions. On each of the five days before the landing from 84 to 102 Liberators, 30 to 42 Mitchells and 36 to 40 Lightnings attacked.
The final plan of the 7th Division provided that the landing would be made at 9 a.m. on 1st July on a 2,000-yard section of the beach between Klandasan and Stalkudo. The beach was divided into three sections: from right to left, Green Beach, Yellow Beach, and Red Beach. The 21st Brigade was to land with one battalion forward on Green, the 18th with two battalions forward on Yellow and Red. The initial object was to secure a position covering the beach maintenance area; thence the 18th Brigade was to seize the high ground dominating the town and free the harbour for use, and the 21st was to advance along the coast and take the airstrips, where it was planned to base one fighter wing by 7th July and, as soon afterwards as possible, three bomber wings. The 25th Brigade, in reserve, was to land on the 2nd, with the probable role of thrusting inland along the Milford Highway.
The briefing of the troops, down to section leaders in the infantry, was extremely thorough. For example, in the 2/10th Battalion, which was to play a crucial part on the first day, the country over which they would attack was studied on vertical and oblique photographs, large-scale maps on which the enemy’s positions were over-printed, and on a large-scale model. Lieut-Colonel Daly, who had commanded the unit since October 1944 and brought it to a high state of efficiency, had lectured all ranks, by companies, on the model, explaining “the overall strategy, the object of the operation, Div tasks, tasks of other Bdes and Bns and a detailed description of the Coy tasks, fire plan and probable subsequent developments”; the men had questioned him and all were made to realise their part in the plan. During four days company, platoon and section commanders were briefed using the model, photographs and maps. An Intelligence centre was set up containing maps, photographs, stereoscopes, Intelligence summaries, terrain studies, etc., and was open first to NCOs and then to all ranks. It was usually full of men all day.
The long voyages, mostly in crowded vessels, that preceded the assault somewhat reduced the fitness of the troops. The 18th Brigade, for example, was taken from Australia to Morotai in LSTs, a voyage of 19 days. The LSTs carried their normal complement of 500, which was not too many for a voyage of a day or two, but far too many for a longish voyage. After less than a week ashore the troops embarked for Balikpapan and spent another five days on overcrowded and uncomfortable craft.
There was insufficient time at the staging area for hardening and acclimatisation, or even adequately to carry out essential administration and briefing of troops. Fortunately the weather at Balikpapan was cool on F-day and subsequently, and the physical effort required of the troops was moderate only; but even so there were some casualties from exhaustion.7
The assault convoy, of more than 100 ships, sailed from Morotai at 1.30 p.m. on 26th June. It steamed at 7+ knots north of Halmahera and Celebes and then south along the Strait of Macassar. On the morning of the 29th the warships of the bombardment group passed the slow-moving transports. The convoy arrived at its appointed area about eight miles South-east of the landing beach an hour and a half before sunrise.
From 7 a.m. five cruisers including HMASs Shropshire and Hobart and 14 destroyers shelled the landing beaches and the defences behind them, and went on until the first waves of landing craft were within 1,300 yards of the beaches, when the fire was shifted to the flanks and rear. About an hour before the landing there was a combined rocket barrage and low-level air strike, and at 10 minutes before the landing a second rocket barrage was delivered. In the 20 days before the assault the Balikpapan–Manggar area received 3,000 tons of bombs, 7,361 rockets, 38,052 shells ranging from 8-inch to 3-inch, and 114,000 rounds from automatic weapons.
This expenditure of ammunition may, in comparison with that expended in previous operations in this theatre, appear to be excessive but examination of the captured area definitely indicates that any less effort would have proven insufficient.8
In the 70 minutes before 8.50 a.m. 62 Liberators attacked, and for the rest of the day flights of 4 to 8 aircraft were overhead at frequent intervals attacking pre-arranged targets or targets of opportunity.
The first and second waves of assaulting troops were carried in nine LSTs which moved to a line of departure 3,000 yards off shore and there launched the LVTs which were to put the leading troops ashore. In the rear transport area remained HMAS Kanimbla, 5 APDs and other craft carrying the remainder of the 18th Brigade Group, and HMASs Manoora and Westralia and other craft carrying the remainder of the 21st Brigade Group and the floating reserve – the 25th Brigade.
In general terms the 18th Brigade’s plan was to land the 2/12th on Yellow Beach and the 2/10th on Red whence they would secure a beachhead about half a mile in depth. Thence the 2/12th was to advance north and take a group of features of which the northernmost was Parkes, one mile inland; and the 2/10th was to advance north-west, capture Hill 87 and exploit north along Parramatta. If the 2/10th failed to take Hill 87 the 2/9th, the reserve battalion, was to capture Parramatta. This ridge at the base of the peninsula on which Balikpapan stood dominated the entire landing beach area, and was vital ground which should be seized as soon as possible.
One company of the 672nd American Amphibious Tractor Battalion with 51 LVTs was allotted to the 18th Brigade. They were to disembark their troops at high-water mark and wait in the assembly area until the engineers cleared mine-free lanes. Thereafter they would carry forward heavy weapons, ammunition, water and other things, and remove wounded men. (Their cross-country performance on the sandy coastal strip was to prove far better than that of the jeeps and trailers which were landed later.)
The plan of the 21st Brigade provided that the 2/27th Battalion would land on Green Beach and secure a covering position to a depth of 800 yards. The 2/16th would pass through and advance to Mount Malang and secure the area from Valley Road to Chilton Road. A troop of the 2/5th Commando Squadron would investigate the area east of Mount Malang. The 2/14th Battalion would come in on the right and advance across the Klandasan Besar and capture an area to the east of it; the 2/7th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment less one squadron, was to move through the 2/14th and take Sepinggang airstrip if it was not strongly held.
Before daylight the troops in the transports could see by the light of fires burning ashore. As the day broke, pillars of smoke were seen rising from the town, with fires gleaming through. Overhead wave after wave of heavy bombers flew in and dropped their bombs. Every now and then an oil tank would be hit and there would be a great burst of brilliant flame rising 1,000 feet or more into the air. The fire of the warships was continuous and deafening. Occasional splashes among the approaching craft showed that at least some Japanese guns were replying. “It was a tremendous and heartening demonstration of power – particularly to those of us who had spent a good deal of the past three years slogging it out the hard way in the jungles of New Guinea,” wrote an officer later.
An incident occurred which could have resulted in opening the assault without the presence of the Corps commander and the Air Officer Commanding RAAF Command. General Morshead and Air Vice-Marshal Bostock saw the embarkation and departure of the assault troops from Morotai. On the day before the landing, with some of their senior staff officers, they left Morotai by RAAF Catalina flying-boat for Tarakan where they spent the early part of the night. The Catalina took off from the Tarakan strip before dawn, the intention being to alight on the sea beside the headquarters ship then lying off Balikpapan. It was proposed that the passengers should be transferred to the headquarters ship operations room to control and follow the assault, and then go ashore as soon as indicated. However, when the Catalina arrived over the proposed alighting area the waves were seen to be so high as to offer a serious threat to the landing step on the hull of the flying-boat and the pilot reported his fears to Group Captain Grant9 of Bostock’s staff (a former flying-boat pilot). Knowing that the aircraft would probably be wrecked
Grant told the pilot to make the alighting. Measures were taken to lessen the shock to the people aboard and the headquarters ship was asked to arrange for a rescue launch to stand by. The aircraft was let down on to the sea where the hull immediately opened up. The occupants were rescued by the launch but the aircraft was a complete loss. General Morshead and Air Vice-Marshal Bostock and staff officers were taken to the headquarters ship. In accordance with Bostock’s policy that one of his staff should take part in each RAAF-supported assault, Grant proceeded to one of the LCVs to take part in the landing as an “acting private” in the 18th Brigade.
As often as not, as a result of errors of navigation or some other factor, troops landed from the sea are put ashore at the wrong spot. At Klandasan the 2/27th Battalion was landed at Yellow Beach, not Green, and of the two forward companies the one on the left took Ration, which was actually an objective of the 2/12th Battalion on its left, and Romilly; the right company took Rottnest. By 10.10 a.m. the battalion held these three features and was on its first objectives, having met little opposition. It had killed 31 Japanese and lost one man killed and eight wounded. A platoon on the extreme right was halted by fire from Stalkudo.
A third company of the 2/27th now moved through and advanced along the Vasey Highway. It came under fire from Charlie’s Spur when 300 yards away, but attacked and took it. That evening a strong party of Japanese tried to escape from tunnels towards Rottnest; they were fired on and, next day, 20 dead were counted.
The 2/16th also was landed some 200 yards west of the intended spot. By 11 a.m. the battalion was on Ravenshoe, whence Malang and Pigeon were visible. Advancing under sharp fire Captain Madigan’s10 company on the left took Record about 4 p.m., killing 46 Japanese. At 4.5 Captain R. H. Christian’s company launched a concerted attack on Malang, supported by the fire of artillery, mortars and machine-guns, and using a flame-thrower. The hill was taken and 40 Japanese were killed. The Australians lost four killed, including the leading platoon commander, Lieutenant Armstrong,11 and 14 wounded. By nightfall the 2/16th held a line through Malang, Pigeon and Record. It had lost 6 killed or died of wounds in the day and 24 wounded; 86 Japanese dead had been counted.
The 2/14th also was put ashore in the wrong place – on Yellow Beach instead of Green – but in 45 minutes moved into its proper areas. It found the bridge over the Klandasan Besar intact, and crossed and reached the bend in the Vasey Highway without opposition. The forward companies dug in beyond the Stalkudo ridge for the night.
At 4.30 the 2/5th Commando Squadron passed through the 2/14th Battalion and, soon afterwards, encountered heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns, mortars and machine-guns sited on the feature north-east of
Stalkudo. Four were killed and Lieutenant Pearson12 of the leading section and 6 others were wounded. The medical officer of the squadron, Captain Allsopp,13 went forward under heavy fire and attended to the wounded. While dragging a trooper towards safety Allsopp was himself hit in the thigh and the trooper whom he was helping was mortally wounded. Allsopp continued to look after wounded and dying men until he was hit again, this time fatally. The squadron dug in for the night.
The 2/12th Battalion also was landed to the left of its appointed place – on Red Beach instead of Yellow. Two companies were put ashore in the first wave each with a detachment of mortars, a section of machine-guns and a detachment of engineers in support. The companies soon moved into their correct areas and took their first objectives without opposition, but when exploiting came under fire from Ration. As mentioned, Ration was taken by the 2/27th, although out of its area. A company of the 2/12th took over this feature, and then engaged a strong position to the north-west, which was taken at 5 p.m. after an attack in which flame-throwers were used and 25 Japanese were killed.
When the second wave landed Lieutenant Kent’s14 platoon became detached from its company, but without more ado it advanced inland along the Valley Road, under fire. At 10.20 a.m. it occupied Portee, far beyond the objective, and placed a section on Newcastle. An hour later about 60 Japanese advanced on Portee from the direction of Newcastle and Australian mortar bombs began falling round the area. Kent withdrew his section from Newcastle and engaged and drove off the Japanese who were advancing on Portee, killing 36 of them. The platoon saw the 2/10th on Parramatta soon after 4 p.m. They dug in for the night on Portee and drove off four attacks in the hours of darkness.
A second platoon of this company took Parkes unopposed, but the third platoon advancing from Plug came under sharp fire. The platoon commander was wounded and the artillery observer (Lieutenant J. N. Pearson) took command, but he was killed by machine-gun fire. A troop of three tanks set off along the Valley Road towards this platoon. One bogged but the other two reached Blyth’s Junction. The platoon consolidated on Plug. In the day the 2/12th lost three killed and 13 wounded and killed 103 Japanese.
The 2/10th next to the left had the crucial task of seizing the dominating Parramatta feature. Lieut-Colonel Daly’s plan was that by 9.15 the two companies in the first wave should seize the high ground overlooking Red Beach and seal off the left flank. Of the two following companies, which were to land at 9.8, one was to be ready to take Petersham Junction when ordered, supported by one troop of Matilda tanks; the other was then to take Hill 87; when Hill 87 had been taken over by the company from Petersham Junction, the company it relieved would then advance
along Parramatta. In support Daly was allotted: the fire of USS Cleveland, a 6-inch gun cruiser; of eight 4.2-inch mortars, and one 6-pounder gun of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment; of a battery of the 2/4th Field Regiment; of a platoon of machine-guns, two troops of Matilda tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment, and three Frogs.
The 2/10th landed in three waves, the first two being in LVTs. By 8.55 a.m. the first wave was ashore and moving up the beach towards the Vasey Highway. A few minutes later the second wave landed, 800 yards west of the intended place. This caused delay, particularly in bringing the mortar and machine-gun platoons into action. By 9.15 the two leading companies had moved fast to their objectives and sent patrols towards Prudent and Petersham Junction, both of which were found to be unoccupied.
Soon after Daly landed he was informed that the cruiser Cleveland had been given another task and consequently another cruiser was being allotted, but it would not have time to register Hill 87 unless the third phase was delayed.
The two companies that were to execute the second and third phases now advanced. Under some small arms fire Captain R. W. Sanderson’s company (“A”) occupied Petersham Junction, a small sandy plateau. Thence under fire from the higher ground to the right Lieutenant Sullivan’s15 platoon secured the lower slopes of Hill 87 to provide cover for the following company to form up and to give depth to the Petersham Junction position where Daly had his command post.
At this stage 4.2-inch mortars and a platoon of medium machine-guns were firing in support of the 2/10th, but neither the expected fire of naval guns nor of field guns was available, and the tanks were bogged near the beach.16 Thus Daly was deprived of the three powerful supports on which he had counted in a difficult attack. He faced the choice between waiting until the supporting fire was ready and at the same time giving the Japanese time to reorganise, or attacking immediately while the Japanese were still suffering from the effects of the preliminary bombardment. He made the bold decision to attack immediately with his fourth company (Major F. W. Cook). This company (“C”) reached Petersham Junction, then, at 10.10 a.m. advanced straight up Hill 87 to the point where Sullivan’s platoon was established.
Lieutenant A. F. McDougall’s 15 Platoon was leading, then came Lieutenant Sinclair’s17 (13), then Lieutenant Davey’s18 (14); all were under mortar fire from Parramatta and small arms fire from “The Island”, a ridge on the right. By effective use of fire and movement, and screened by smoke laid by heavy mortars of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, the leading platoon pressed on and gained a position 50 yards below the crest
of Hill 87 but was pinned there by small arms and mortar fire, having lost 5 killed and 7 wounded. Cook ordered Sinclair’s platoon to the left to take Green Spur. It became involved in a dogfight in which it killed 16 Japanese, of whom Lance-Corporal Copping19 killed 6, and in which it lost 4 killed. While this was happening McDougall’s platoon, with the help of a tank, subdued the enemy fire on Hill 87 and overran it. In the final stages Private Abel,20 from whose hands a Bren gun had been shot away, continued to lead his section, although severely wounded.
The Japanese were now returning to positions abandoned during the preliminary bombardment and the Australians were meeting stronger opposition. Thirteen in the leading platoon had now been killed or
wounded and only 17 remained, but the attack lost none of its impetus. The leading man in the final thrust on to Hill 87 was Corporal Symons.21 Finally Symons was lying behind a heap of drums of tar wondering, as Japanese bullets hit them, whether the tar would all drain out and he would be left with no protection. The rear platoon (Lieutenant Davey) came under sharp fire from Japanese whom the leading platoons had passed by.
This was the situation when Major Ryrie22 of the 1st Armoured Regiment arrived and said his tanks were coming. Cook told his leading platoon to hold on. By 11.40 two tanks had climbed Hill 87 and were helping to dispose of isolated pockets of Japanese. Ryrie moved about fearlessly reconnoitring for the tanks and inspired all by his coolness. As soon as the tanks appeared over the crest the Japanese on Hill 87 ceased firing. By 12.50 preparations were under way for an assault on Parramatta. Six tanks, including one Frog, were now forward and a battery of the 2/4th Field Regiment was being registered by Captain W. A. S. Whyte on targets on Parramatta. Before midday a team under Lieutenant Low23 of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment had manhandled a 6-pounder forward to a point near Hill 87 whence LVTs helped it on to the hill itself.
The attack opened at 1.20 p.m. with Davey’s platoon forward, each section having a tank with it. Ryrie coolly walked ahead of the leading tank which was ahead of the leading section. For the first 20 minutes there was not much opposition but then mortar fire became severe. Daly and Cook conferred and Daly asked for an air strike on the north-east end of Parramatta, and ordered Sanderson’s company to move up behind Cook’s and mop up the South-western slopes of Hill 87. Davey’s platoon pushed on and, with the tanks, took Parramatta, and the air strike was cancelled. With flame-throwers and with the help of the tanks the rest of the company quickly dealt with tunnels and pill-boxes that had been by-passed. At 2.12 p.m. the success signal was fired. So far Cook’s company had lost 9 killed and 10 wounded.
A patrol led by Sergeant A. A. Evans was sent out from Davey’s platoon towards Newcastle. They silenced a bunker with a flame-thrower, and came to a house from which Japanese were firing. They overcame this position with grenades and small arms fire and then moved on to Newcastle. As Evans reached Newcastle he saw the surviving Japanese making off towards Portee.
Davey’s platoon now occupied Newcastle and the other platoon took up positions on Parramatta. The seizure of Parramatta gave the 2/10th observation over the low ground to the north and the northern end of the town, and tied the battalion in with the 2/12th on Portee; the Japanese were now in a very poor position to counter-attack from the western end
of the beach-head. Lieutenant Russack24 of Sanderson’s company led a patrol to the Cracking Plant where it silenced a Japanese pill-box. This patrol was strafed by American aircraft, but worse was to follow. At 4.55 American carrier-borne aircraft made a run over Parramatta from the west and dropped bombs and fired rockets across Hill 87, which had then been in the hands of the 2/10th for four hours and a half. Much of this fire landed in the area into which Captain Brocksopp’s25 company (“D”) had moved and where Daly’s command post was established. Three were killed, including Lance-Sergeant Hackett,26 a veteran of several campaigns, and 14 wounded, including Major G. R. Miethke and two other officers. Air panels were displayed in all platoon areas after this.
Daly decided to hold that night as far forward as Newcastle, on which he placed two platoons plus a platoon of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, all under Captain Bowie.27 In the day the battalion had lost 13 killed and 30 wounded, but 216 Japanese dead were counted. That night 24 more Japanese were killed while trying to penetrate the Australians’ positions and no Australian was hit. All night there were fires round about where houses were burning, and the blazing oil tanks on the Tank Plateau 600 yards to the west of the Parramatta ridge lit up the landscape.28
The main reasons for the success of the assault on Parramatta had been the swift advance of Cook’s company up the sides of Hill 87 regardless of “mopping up”, the speed and skill of the individual infantrymen and the way in which they went on despite heavy losses, Daly’s action in ordering the company to press on when he had practically no reserves and little supporting fire, and the cool and courageous handling of the tanks by Ryrie and his team.
The 2/9th Battalion had remained in reserve for an hour after landing, and at 10.40 Brigadier Chilton ordered it to relieve that part of the 2/10th that was on Prudent and round Petersham Junction. It was then given the task of moving west and occupying Klandasan as far as Signal Hill. In the afternoon one company with a troop of tanks did this, clearing the houses one by one. At 6 p.m. it took Santosa Hill against light opposition, and then dug in for the night having achieved its task.
The diary of the 1st Armoured Regiment records that Lieutenant Rossiter,29 commanding the three tanks that were with this company,
on advising the infantry commander that the tanks were bogged outside the perimeter was somewhat stunned by the reply, “That’s all right old man – I’ve finished with them.”
At the beach-head the first LCT had come ashore at 10.17 a.m. About 1 p.m. Generals MacArthur, Morshead and Milford had landed. That day GHQ issued the following somewhat florid communiqué about the Balikpapan operation:
Australian ground forces have made a third major landing on the vast island of Borneo. Elements of the veteran Seventh Australian Division have secured a firm beach-head at Balik Papan, famed oil center on the southeastern coast. This area was a major source of fuel oil and aviation gasoline for the Japanese, with a total production of 15,000,000 barrels per year.
The landing was preceded by intensive air and naval bombardment and preparation of beach approaches by the Royal Australian and Far Eastern Air Forces and the United States Seventh Fleet, Royal Australian and Royal Netherlands Navies.
Assault waves swept ashore directly east of the town and rapidly advanced inland. Our losses have been very light. Swiftly following our seizure of Brunei Bay on the northwestern coast and Tarakan on the northeastern, the enemy’s key Borneo defences are now isolated or crushed, and his confused and disorganised forces are incapable of effective strategic action.
The speed, surprise and shock of these three operations have secured domination of Borneo and driven a wedge south, splitting the East Indies. Strategic Macassar Strait, gateway to the Flores and Java Seas, is now controlled by our surface craft as well as by air and submarine.
Development of already existing air facilities at Balik Papan will enable our aircraft of all categories to disrupt and smash enemy communications on land and sea from Timor to eastern Sumatra. The whole extent of Java and the important ports of Surabaya and Batavia are now within easy flight range and subject to interdiction. Our shipping can now sail with land-based air cover to any point in the South-West Pacific. It is fitting that the Seventh Australian Division which, in July, three years ago, met and later turned back the tide of invasion of Australia on the historic Kokoda trail, should this same month secure what was once perhaps the most lucrative strategic target in our East Indies sector and virtually complete our tactical control of the entire South-West Pacific.
The 2/14th Battalion’s task for 2nd July was to thrust along the Vasey Highway and seize the Sepinggang airstrip. This was swiftly done. The leading platoon moved off at 9 a.m. and by 10.30 was at the strip, having encountered no Japanese. By 1 p.m. the battalion was firmly established round the strip. Thus far it had found two naval guns and two 25-mm guns abandoned.
On the 2nd the 2/27th strengthened and extended its hold on the high ground north-west of Stalkudo. To the north-east the 2/3rd Commando Squadron (Major P. L. Tancred) was held by heavy fire from Lady Schofield and made little progress. Lieutenant Burzacott30 was fatally wounded here. The 2/16th Battalion thrust north and took Resort, Owen and Oxley without loss.
In the 18th Brigade’s sector the 2/12th on the 2nd took Potts and strengthened its hold on Portee, where Lieutenant Kent’s platoon was now at last in touch with its own battalion. In the day the 2/12th killed 11 Japanese and lost only one man wounded. Along the brigade’s front
and particularly in the 2/10th’s area, engineers of the 2/4th Field Company (Major Taylor31) and infantry blew in several tunnels in which Japanese were sheltering. It was found that the most effective way of sealing tunnels was to send engineer parties forward under covering fire to explode two 25-pound pack charges on the floor of the tunnel just inside the entrance. Normally where underground shelters or mines and booby-traps were expected or encountered six engineers, with six infantry pioneers, were attached to each attacking infantry company. In the course of the whole Balikpapan operation the engineers cooperated in destroying 110 tunnels and pill-boxes. More than 8,000 mines and booby-traps were disarmed.
During the night of 1st–2nd July the 2/10th, having thrust so deeply into a main enemy stronghold, killed about 40 Japanese who tried to infiltrate the Australians’ positions. Patrols probed the Cracking Plant, Tank Plateau, Nought, Reservoir, and Nomen. At 3.30 Captain Brocksopp’s company with four tanks and strong fire support occupied Mount Sepuluh and the Cracking Plant.32
On 3rd July one company advanced through the port, another cleared the Tank Plateau and a third the lower ground between the plateau and Parramatta. In the three days the 2/10th had lost 16 killed or died of wounds and 40 wounded, but buried 332 Japanese dead. The 2/9th, with its troop of tanks, on 3rd July took Santosa barracks which it had by-passed the previous day.
The division now held a bridgehead about five miles wide by a mile deep, and had secured one of the two airstrips; on the 3rd light aircraft began operating from it. The unloading of heavy equipment and stores was not easy and caused anxiety. There was a swell which made it difficult to transfer loads to LCTs and small craft, and it was impossible to run the LSTs on to the beach. By 6 a.m. on the 3rd, however, 985 vehicles and 1,932 tons of other equipment and stores had been landed and 16,950 men were ashore. Later that morning an LST began unloading at a pontoon jetty built on Green Beach by an American naval construction battalion.
The captured port was a collection of wrecked workshops and warehouses, with little left but rusty, twisted steel, and wrecked houses of which often only piles of rubble remained. The seven wharves for oceangoing vessels had all been burnt and none were usable. One dump of scrap iron collected by the Japanese from the ruins was 520 yards long, and opposite it was another about 150 yards long.
On 3rd July the company of the 2/14th on the right flank began moving towards the Manggar strip. Brigadier Dougherty arrived at the battalion’s headquarters at 11 a.m. and ordered Lieut-Colonel P. E. Rhoden to send
the whole unit forward as soon as the 2/27th had taken over the defence of the Sepinggang strip. By 12.30 this had been done and the 2/14th was on the move. A group of Japanese round the Batakan Kechil held up the advance from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. by which time fire from naval vessels and mortars had driven the enemy out. The historian of the 2/14th records that the men of the leading platoon
were feeling specially bitter towards the enemy at this time, because on the previous afternoon they had buried a number of native men and women who had been victims of Japanese atrocities and mutilation.33
Evidence was found later in other areas of the slaughter of large groups of civilians.
That morning the 2/3rd Commando Squadron found that the Lady Schofield feature, on which were five mortars and two anti-aircraft guns, had been abandoned; patrols pressed on more than a mile across the high ground overlooking the Sepinggang River.
The 25th Brigade headquarters landed on the 1st and the battalions on the 2nd. At first the brigade took over central portions of the front. It was now, on the 3rd, given the task of thrusting inland astride the Milford Highway while the 18th Brigade continued to secure the town and harbour. The brigade advanced with the 2/33rd on the right and the 2/31st on the left. The 2/33rd soon met heavy opposition in the hills above Chilton Road. At Opus the leading platoon came under heavy fire and its commander, Lieutenant Turner,34 was hit. With the support of machine-guns Opus was taken. Then, with artillery support, two companies attacked Operator, also strongly held. Here a platoon commander, Lieutenant Hinton,35 was mortally wounded. By dark the battalion held Opus, Operator, Oxygen and a height to the north-east, and Orange and was overlooking the next lateral track – Dougherty’s Road.
The 2/31st was ordered to advance along the road and secure a line from Newsreel to Chilton Road. The two leading companies moved fast against increasing opposition. To the west of the road the leading platoon was halted by fire from two pill-boxes; Sergeant Campbell36 dashed forward and knocked out both pill-boxes with grenades. By 9.45 the right-hand company had secured the junction of the main road and Chilton Road.
Lieut-Colonel E. M. Robson of the 2/31st ordered his leading companies to take the high ground north of Chilton Road, and Nurse, Nail and Nobody – a long stride forward. The southern slopes of Nobody were taken, but there was heavy fire from the other hills which were covered with thick undergrowth. On Nurse the Japanese were dug in in depth, with at least six machine-guns. Here, when a forward section was pinned
down on a narrow ridge, Private Buckley37 dashed fifteen yards over open ground and killed four Japanese who were manning a heavy machine-gun. Later a section of a forward platoon of Captain Henderson’s38 “D” Company which was attacking Nurse was cut off by an enemy counter-attack and its commander killed. Corporal Tobin39 took over and the men fought their way back 600 yards to the platoon.
After eight minutes of firing by Vickers guns a platoon of this company attacked in the gap between the other two platoons at 2.10 p.m. and secured a footing in the jungle below the main enemy position on Nurse. One section reached a point above the enemy and attacked downhill but were heavily engaged and all but two were killed or wounded. The survivors, Corporal Farman40 and Private Harrison,41 killed some 20 Japanese when they counter-attacked across open ground. The company was now under heavy fire from Nobody. Captain Henderson was wounded here but carried on.
A platoon of “A” Company now attacked from the west on to Nobody but ran into very heavy fire; in the undergrowth the sections lost contact and the attack was beaten back, the platoon losing 2 killed and 10 wounded. Sergeant Confoy42 who had led two sections gallantly in the attack extricated them coolly and reorganised them. A section thrust forward to a ridge slightly lower than the crest of Nobody, 200 yards from the enemy. “D” Company, attacking Nurse, now had lost 4 killed and 15 wounded and three were missing, and Robson ordered it to withdraw and regroup; seven more were hit while this was being done. “A” Company took over in the forward area and at 4 p.m. artillery and one section of Vickers guns began a heavy and accurate bombardment of Nobody. In this duel one officer (Lieutenant Brennan43) and two others were killed and one officer wounded. Harassing fire on Nobody and Nurse was continued throughout the night. In the day the battalion had lost 13 killed and 37 wounded.
Next morning, however, at 7 a.m. a patrol under Sergeant Confoy reported that the Japanese had abandoned Nobody; they found 10 Japanese dead in one group which had been fired into by the Vickers guns. Half an hour later another patrol reported that Nurse too was unoccupied. Two missing men were found, both alive but wounded. The battalion had now reached its objective: the line Nobody-Nurse. Brigadier Eather (commanding the 25th Brigade) came forward and ordered it to hold
that line and patrol forward of it. The enemy dead who had been counted now numbered 63, and others had been sealed in tunnels on Nurse, three prisoners had been taken and six medium and heavy machine-guns and a heavy mortar.
On the left the 2/12th on 3rd July had marched towards Pandansari but came under artillery and small arms fire from Nail. Nail was in the 25th Brigade area, but the 2/31st was then fully engaged at Nurse and Lieut-Colonel C. C. F. Bourne, commanding the 2/12th, sought and was given permission to take Nail. A company attacked at 6 p.m. with support from artillery and mortars and the guns of tanks which, though halted by an anti-tank ditch, gave supporting fire from that position. In a perfectly-executed attack the company took the hill, where 34 Japanese dead were counted.
Before this attack two war correspondents, John Elliott44 and William Smith,45 who had enlisted in the AIF in 1941 and been discharged to take up their present appointments, had moved into the port area evidently not knowing that they were ahead of the forward troops. A Bren gunner saw them among the buildings South-west of Nail and, assuming they were Japanese, shot them dead.
On the morning of the 4th “C” Company of the 2/31st occupied Nail and took up a defensive position there, and patrols probed to Lodge,
about 500 yards north of Orr’s Junction. The exits of a system of tunnels on Nobody were blown in and more dead bodies and graves were found on Nurse, Nobody and Nail.
On the right flank there was heavy rain on the night of 3rd-4th July. In the morning the 2/14th advanced on Manggar, the last main objective on the east, and apparently undefended. Captain E. R. Clarke’s company crossed the river and advanced 1,300 yards across the airstrip in open formation. Then Captain Mott’s46 company followed, with Brigadier Dougherty and Colonel Rhoden and his command group. Dougherty climbed half way up the 60-foot airfield control tower to survey the scene and then re-crossed the river to return to his headquarters.
Suddenly at 11.50 fire from coast-defence guns, from 75’s firing airburst shells, from mortars and light quick-firing guns swept across the airfield. The fire was concentrated particularly on the bridge and the control tower. Near the tower Major Taylor,47 commander of the 55th Battery, fell mortally wounded. Captain Chapman48 had just begun ranging the guns of the nearest battery – the 10th – on to the Japanese guns when a shell burst killed him and Lieutenant Knight49 of the 2/14th, mortally wounded Bombardier O’Neill50 and wounded Lieut-Colonel Richardson,51 the commanding officer of the artillery regiment, Major G. O. O’Day of the 2/14th, and two artillery signallers. It also put the telephone out of action. Sergeant Ferguson52 (of the 2/14th) went back under fire and guided forward Lieutenant Skea53 of the 2/5th Field Regiment, who borrowed a telephone from the infantry and directed fire.
The supporting destroyer, Eaton, soon ranged on to the Japanese guns, its fire being directed by Lieutenant Thorp54 of the Naval Bombardment Group who had climbed the control tower and remained there with shells bursting round him; the tower was hit twice and one of its legs shot away. The fire somewhat quietened the enemy’s guns, but their bombardment lasted for an hour. The infantry, however, lost only one man killed and five wounded.
A group from the leading company, including Captain Clarke, had been forward on reconnaissance when the Japanese guns opened up and had killed three Japanese who were emerging from a shelter to man a gun
position; three more Japanese were killed at the north-west end of the strip. Later another party of the 2/14th destroyed a heavy machine-gun post sited to cover Vasey Highway.
At 2.30 p.m. Mott’s company was withdrawn to the west side of the river and remained there until dusk when it moved forward and occupied the dispersal bays. Rhoden had the problem of taking a heavily-armed stronghold commanding the whole of the airfield area. Two troops of tanks had now been made available to him.
By now the enemy had been driven from all positions from which interference could be caused to the unloading of stores. He had been pushed out of the town and had lost the two airstrips. It was apparent at this stage that he was trying to withdraw the remnants of his force to the Batu-champar area, and with this object in view would delay as long as possible an advance along the Milford Highway.55
Enemy documents captured up to 4th July showed that when the landing took place the I Battalion of Rear-Admiral Michiaki Kamada’s 22nd Naval Base Force was deployed from Klandasan to the Sumber River and it was this unit that had been broken on the first day. Round Manggar was the 454th Battalion (Major Yamada), an army unit, which had arrived from Tarakan in March. Astride Milford Highway in the Batuchampar area was the II Battalion of the 22nd Naval Base Force. Two companies and other detachments were in the Penadjam area, west of Balikpapan across the bay. The strength of Kamada’s force was initially about 3,900; up to 5th July 665 dead had been counted and it was estimated that 132 more than that had been killed.
At first light on 5th July naval vessels bombarded the gun positions above Manggar. This was followed by air attacks by Liberators at 8.30; they attacked again twice that day. A 6-pounder anti-tank gun was brought
forward at 11.20 a.m. to the west end of the bridge whence it fired on the coast-defence guns with armour-piercing shot at about 1,200 yards’ range. (It was later found that it had made six direct hits on one coast gun and disabled it.)
At 2 p.m. LCMs landed a troop of three tanks on the north bank of the river at a spot where it was thought that they would be defiladed from the Japanese guns, but this was not so, and the guns destroyed two tanks and damaged the third, killing one man and wounding the troop commander and others. All day the duel continued between naval and artillery guns and aircraft on one side and the Japanese guns on the other, but the Japanese guns were not silenced.
At dusk the company that had been forward round the airfield while this duel was being fought over its head was relieved by Major O’Day’s company. At 7 p.m. a 25-pounder was brought forward to the bridge ready for action at point-blank range next day. Rhoden planned to attack the Japanese guns with infantry backed by the fire of all supporting arms. Meanwhile the forward infantry were probing. At 1 a.m. on the 6th six men under Corporal Gibson56 patrolled to within 25 yards of a barricade round the tunnel that housed one of the Japanese guns but the Japanese manned the defences within the barricade and the patrol could do nothing more.
The 25-pounder brought forward on the night of the 5th was placed under the command of Sergeant Palmer,57 who had been one of the team manning a similar forward gun at Buna in 1942. He took 10 men with him. At dawn the gun opened fire. It fired 150 rounds and silenced two guns, one thought to be 155-mm calibre and the other 75-mm. Later Captain Tinkler58 began to direct the fire of the two batteries of the 2/5th on to 20-mm guns in the same area, and silenced at least three.59
General Milford went forward to Brigadier Dougherty’s headquarters on the morning of the 6th and expressed approval of the steps being taken to overcome the enemy stronghold. A fighting patrol of 13 was to move against the Japanese No. 1 gun on what was later named Waites’ Knoll, and at the same time another patrol was to move north along the Vasey Highway to investigate the effects of the bombing of the guns farther on.
It was now evident that the end of the war was not far off; Dougherty was in no haste to take the 2/14th Battalion’s objectives, but preferred to use all the supporting fire he could muster and minimise his losses.
The patrol to Waites’ Knoll was led by Lieutenant Doyle.60 It was to have the support of naval, field and anti-aircraft guns, of mortars and
aircraft. The weather prevented the heavy bombers from attacking, but finally some Lightnings strafed the gun positions and dropped fire bombs. At 12.37 p.m. on the 6th Doyle led his patrol forward. The men moved through the bush for an hour and a half, and then, from a position 50 yards from the guns, they advanced firing their weapons and throwing grenades. A sapper carrying a 24-pound explosive charge was killed. Lance-Corporal Waites61 raced forward and picked up the charge but he was mortally wounded. Corporal Lynch62 led his section against a coast-gun on the left, threw in grenades and then climbed to the top of the emplacement and fired to cover the movement of his section. Private Sullivan63 raced 80 yards to the other gun, forced the crew out with phosphorous smoke grenades and put them to flight. About 50 Japanese were driven off the hill and two 120-mm guns were captured. As the hill was being cleared the remainder of the platoon, under Sergeant Phefley,64 moved in. The Australians were still greatly outnumbered, however, and Doyle sent back a request that the remainder of the company should move up; a second platoon was allotted. At this stage the company commander, Major O’Day, and others who were watching from a dispersal bay down below were wounded by mortar fire. Captain Thompson,65 though wounded, took command and went forward to Waites’. He asked for another platoon and Lieutenant McLaren’s66 was sent forward. It was now dusk and the company dug in for the night, while the artillery and mortars registered.
It rained heavily and soon the water in the trenches was chest high. From these trenches the men had to fight off four attacks during the night. The first was made by about one company soon after darkness, and a standing patrol which had been sited some distance forward to keep away from a burning ammunition bunker which might have exploded was forced to withdraw. It was not realised until daylight next morning that the Bren gunner, Private Hamilton,67 and his Number 2, Private Leeson,68 had stayed behind and held their post, whence they killed eight Japanese.
In the meantime the enemy had made a very strong thrust on the left flank (said the company report). The position looked very grim as all communication with battalion had failed and no defensive fire could be called down. However the company held and the enemy were beaten back.
Interesting sidelights were: a Jap officer brandishing a sword jumping into a weapon-pit and being bayoneted for his trouble. Private (now Corporal) Dick Hill69
who, after dealing with two Japs who attacked him, was attacked by a third carrying a spear, just as he emptied his magazine. Luckily the Jap only used the spear to hit Hill and Hill’s gameness in wrestling with the Jap while reloading and then killing his opponent is something still talked about. It is said that he further surprised the Jap by calling out: “Get out, you silly b–––.” A very serious situation now developed. Owing to the rain and mud all automatic weapons and practically all rifles failed. Grenades became the order while frantic efforts were made to clean the weapons and keep them firing. It was a company of very tired men who greeted the dawn. Ammunition had run low and the night had been full of danger but their determination to hold the position never wavered.
The patrol, under Lieutenant Robinson,70 which had moved north along Vasey Highway, was pinned down by a gun covering the rear of the Japanese position. Robinson was wounded, and the patrol withdrew in the evening.
On the morning of the 7th patrols were sent out. One of these, investigating two spurs on the left flank, came under artillery fire intended for its support and all but one of the 12 men in the patrol were killed or wounded. The Japanese attacked again next night, but the defenders were now prepared and defensive fire well organised; the 2/5th Field Regiment landed its shells only 30 to 40 yards from the forward Australian positions. The Japanese attacked five times, using petrol bombs, machine-guns and grenades, but all these attacks were driven off. On 8th July this forward company was relieved and marched to a rest area; probably 100 Japanese had been killed in the two-day fight.
On the 9th the cruiser Shropshire fired on the enemy positions from 8.30 onwards. At 9.30 a troop of tanks was landed by LCMs. From
11 a.m. the enemy were bombed by Liberators and napalm was dropped. At 12.30 Rhoden decided that the Japanese stronghold had been neutralised and Captain Clarke’s company and Captain H. Dalby’s, supported by an artillery concentration of 600 rounds, attacked the Frost and Brown features, the sites of the remaining guns. By dusk Frost and Brown had been taken without much opposition, and the long fight round Manggar was over. A total of 107 Japanese dead were counted in the stronghold and it was thought that perhaps 150 had been buried in the tunnels that had been blown in. The guns with which the fortress was armed were found to be: two 120-mm naval guns, five 25-mm twin-barrelled guns, four 75-mm high-angle guns, four 20-mm aircraft cannons, five heavy mortars, five heavy machine-guns.
At this stage (wrote the 2/14th Battalion’s diarist) an unhappy situation arose in that our battle-exhausted troops were constantly worried by streams of war correspondents, sightseers and souvenir hunters from rear areas who not only interfered with the final stages of the campaign, but also deprived the fighting troops, who had done all the work, from securing the time-honoured trophies of a hard-fought battle. It is felt that such personnel despite their importance in the general scheme of things should be awakened to the parasitical nature of their activities and that the small prizes of war, not within the category of loot, ever have been and ever should be the reward of the combat soldier.
Meanwhile a hard fight had been in progress also at Gate where the 2/16th Battalion and the 2/5th Commando Squadron were engaged against a resolute group of Japanese. On 6th July Lieutenant Stark71 of the 2/16th took a patrol almost to the crest of Gate, but came under heavy fire and was forced back, with the Japanese following up. The same day Lieutenant Redhead72 of the 2/5th Commando Squadron was killed in a thrust towards the same feature. The attackers were supported by heavy fire from the 2/5th Field Regiment directed by Lieutenant Scott,73 who, finding it difficult to get a good view, climbed a tree using an improvised ladder; five men of the 2/16th were hit by mortar fire, two fatally, while helping Scott. From his dangerous post Scott systematically bombarded Gate, and on the 8th the 2/16th took it without opposition. Next day the 2/16th took Grand after Scott had directed 300 rounds on to it from a position about 50 yards from the enemy.
Seldom in the war against the Japanese had Australians had such opportunities for clearing the way with the fire of guns as at Balikpapan, and Milford and his subordinates made the most of the opportunities. Milford had raised the 7th Divisional Artillery in 1940 and taken it to the Middle East, where it fought in Syria under another commander, Milford having been transferred to a more senior appointment in Australia. Now for the first time since Syria the regiments were in action together again.
The weight of shells fired into Balikpapan before the landing was mentioned earlier. On the day of the landing 17,250 shells and rockets were fired from the sea in the opening stage and, after the landing, the ships, at the call of officers ashore, fired 13,850 shells. In the first ten days the 25-pounders fired 41,800 rounds. In addition Air Vice-Marshal Bostock had used some 40 bomber squadrons drawn from the RAAF, Fifth Air Force and Thirteenth Air Force to pound the defences.
“The operation was a lesson on the use of fire power,” wrote Brigadier Dougherty in his report. “The old hands of this division remember the Owen Stanleys where they had no artillery; Gona, where 250 rounds of 25-pounder was all we could accumulate for the final assault on the Mission and where one tank would have saved 200 lives if we had only had it; the Markham and Ramu Valleys where we were an airborne division, and where the artillery support available, though on a far more liberal scale than before, was subject to the obvious limitations imposed by the need for supply by air.”