Kokoda - Papua New Guinea
In the first half of 1942, the Japanese achieved stunning success seemingly everywhere they directed their forces forward. The two principal Allied bases, Singapore (/explore/campaigns/48)and the Philippines, fell early in the year. Around 250,000 Allied prisoners were taken at a cost of just 15,000 Japanese casualties. Rabaul (/explore/campaigns/125)in New Britain fell in January and was transformed into a major Japanese naval base. From Rabaul, the Japanese fleet moved into the Solomon Islands and tried to take Port Moresby by sea. This was prevented in the naval Battle of the Coral Sea (/explore/campaigns/50) in early May. While it was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it was a critical strategic victory for the Allies, as it thwarted the Japanese intent of a seaborne attack on Port Moresby.
Despite this defeat, the Japanese remained committed to taking Port Moresby and controlling the Solomon Islands. Not only were these ports and airfields vital to protecting Rabaul (by depriving the Allies of suitable bases), they blocked the sea route between Australia and the US. Port Moresby would also be also an excellent base for any future invasion of the Australian mainland. These plans were upset by two events:
The stunning US Naval victory at Midway, in early June 1942, robbed the Imperial Japanese Navy of much of its momentum, and prestige. The loss of four aircraft carriers was a blow from which it never really recovered. Later, American landings on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on 7 August threatened the Japanese to the extent that the battle for Guadalcanal would be the main focus for both sides for the remainder of 1942. However, another action was unfolding in New Guinea.
Japanese troops had first landed on Papua in March, at Lae and Salamaua. A much larger force (eventually around 13,000 strong) was landed at Gona (on New Guinea's north coast) on 21 July, with the aim of crossing the Owen Stanley Range and capturing Port Moresby by land. The route over the mountains was a narrow and rugged path known as the Kokoda Track (or Trail). The implications of the terrain over which this camapign was fought were never fully appreciated by the headquarters on either side.
The iconic image of the Kokoda campaign. Exhausted men of the 39th (Militia) Battalion assembled at Isurava after their Homeric fighting withdrawal from the northern beach-heads, prior to their relief by the 21st Brigade.
There were, initially, not many Australian troops opposing them: only the 39th Battalion (/explore/units/830) of the CMF. Under trained poorly equipped (they had no artillery, and initially had only just begun receiving modern light weapons such as the Bren Gun and Thompson sub-machine gun)) and wearing khaki uniforms more suited to the desert, the situation these men found themselves is an appalling reflection of the state of the nation to defend itself at that time. The men of the 39th Battalion were based around the settlement of Kokoda, about 80km inland from the Japanese at Gona. Its importance lay in the fact that it had the only airfield for the length of the Track. The Australian units, which became known as Maroubra Force, under the command of Brigadier Arnold Potts, were driven out of Kokoda on 29 July. Although they briefly reoccupied the settlement on 9 August, they were soon driven back again. This began the first phase of the Kokoda campaign: the delaying defence along the Track towards Port Moresby.
This phase was marked by a series of engagements as the Australian troops tried to delay or halt the Japanese.
The Force Commander, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, was intent on transferring his problems of supplying his front line troops, to his enemy. A delaying defence was the preferred course of action; if only his outnumbered and outgunned men could hold the Japanese advance until they were reinforced. And that is what occurred.
The Australians were reinforced with two AIF battalions of the 21st Brigade : the 2nd/14th Infantry Battalion (/explore/units/364) (Vic) and the 2nd/16th Infantry Battalion (/explore/units/815) (WA). The main engagements were:
- Isurava (26-31 August)
- First Eora Creek-Templeton’s Crossing (31 August-5 September)
- Brigade Hill (also known as Mission Ridge or Efogi) (6-9 September)
- Ioribaiwa (14-16 September)
During Isurava, even though it had technically been relieved, the remaining exhausted men of the 39th Battalion realised their AIF colleagues were not sufficent in numbers to hold the renewed Japanese onslaught, and turned back towards the fighting to reinforce the rear and flanks of the defenders.
The third battalion of the 21st Brigade, the 2nd/27th Infantry Battalion (SA), joined late in August, having been held in Reserve for close protection of Port Moresby. At Mission Ridge, elements of the 2nd/27th Battalion were cut off as their colleagues withdrew in a desperate fighting withdrawal, in the face of relentless pressure.
The 2nd/27th men endured two weeks in trackless jungle, carrying wounded men from the other Battalions of the Brigade, with virtually no ammunition or rations, and the task quickly took its toll. They were striving to overtake the Japanese advance on a parallel path they cut through the jungle. Slowed by their stretcher cases who they were determined not to leave behind, they eventually aggregated their wounded near a native garden, with local protection and struck out to make contact with and rejoin the main force lines behind Ioribaiwa, before returning to and retrieving their wounded.
From Ioribaiwa, the Japanese troops could actually see Port Moresby. By then they were at the end of their tether, exhausted, starving and had over-extended their own supply lines, exactly as Rowell had anticipated. Due to events in the Solomon Islands (where the Americans were winning), the Japanese commander was ordered to abandon his attempt to take Port Moresby and return to the northern beachhead around Gona.
This period was also marked by one of the most controversial series of events in Australia's WW2 history; General Blamey, under pressure from US General McArthur, isolated from the fighting in his headquarters in Brisbane, sacked the very men who had arguably successfully directed the conduct of the delaying defence that had saved Port Moresby, despite the uninformed interference of a Headquarters thousands of kilometres away. General Rowell and Brigadier Arnold Potts were relieved of their commands.
This began (from 26 September) the second phase of the Kokoda campaign: now it was the Japanese conducting a fighting retreat along the Track. The principal Australian formations involved were the 3rd Battalion (/explore/units/998)(CMF); the 25th Brigade, which comprised the 2nd/25th (/explore/units/545), 2nd/31st (/explore/units/519) (Qld) and 2nd/33rd (/explore/units/553) (NSW) Infantry Battalions; and the 16th Brigade, which comprised the 2nd/1st (/explore/units/560), 2nd/2nd (/explore/units/807) and 2nd/3rd (/explore/units/613) Infantry Battalions (all initially recruited from NSW). All of the AIF troops were veterans of the Middle East.
With the Japanese now themselves withdrawing, the Australians advanced all through October, with frequent bloody battles against determined and skilled Japanese defenders. They reoccupied Kokoda, at the far end of the Track, on 2 November. The next phase of the fighting was the attack on the Japanese beachheads (/explore/campaigns/93) around Gona and Buna.
The Owen Stanley Range is some of the most difficult country on earth on which to fight. The Kokoda Track was impassable for vehicles. Mules could move on some parts of it. But for most of its length, supplies had to be carried by people, or airdropped. Indigenous Papuan carriers, nicknamed 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels' carried supplies forward and the sick and wounded to the rear. As Warrant Officer George Mowatt (/explore/people/640711) noted in his diary, “Track slippery some places had to crawl hand and knees. Hills & yet more hills”. The Track went across the grain of the mountains: up one hill, down into the valley and then up the next hill again.
Then there was the jungle. With the heavy winter rains, mists were frequent. That meant visibility was very poor, so that fighting in the jungle was like fighting at night. Ambushes were common. Troops from both sides tried to outflank their enemy, but the mountainous terrain and climatic conditions meant it often took a long time for them to move into position let alone extract from one under pressure.
Moving the wounded was an entiely manual process. One stretcher case requires 8 men to move an y distance and the effort required in difficult terrain has to be experienced to be understood. The weather and terrain also made for among the most challenging and dangerous air operations conditions anywhere. Far more aircraft on both sides were lost to weather and terrain than to enemy action.
And all the while McArthur's headquarters in Brisbane completely out of touch with the reality on the ground, was proposing 'demolitions' as a mean of delaying the Japanese. The Australian Government's lack of support for its own commanders and troops in the face of the bluff and bluster of McArthur remains one of the lowest points in the history of the defence of our national sovereignty. Worse was to come in the Beachhead Battles.
Effective supply would have been far more useful.
It is not surprising that there were about 600 Australians killed, 1050 wounded and (probably) around 4,000 taken sick.
The Kokoda campaign has assumed immense significance since the late 20th century, as a battle which halted the seemingly unstoppable Japanese advance and as was believed at the time, prevented an invasion of Australia.
It was actally at Milne Bay (/explore/campaigns/52) on the eastern extremity of New Guinea, where the Japanese sustained their first defeat on land, by the 18th Brigade, in early September 1942.
However it has been Kokoda that captured the public's imagination and the 39th Battalion has rightly been lauded for its Homeric fighting withdrawal that bought vital time for the 7th Division to arrive and reinforce the delaying defence which drew the Japanese to the limits of their supply chain, before counter-attacking the length of the Track and into the Japanese beachheads.
Although it is now generally agreed that the Japanese never actually planned to invade the Australian mainland, their failure to take Port Moresby meant no invasion could be contemplated in the future. In fact unbeknown to the Allies at the time, there was a major rift in intent between the Imperial Japanese Navy, which was intent on advancing as far as possiblle, and the Army which was totally absorbed and focussed on fighting in China and later Burma.
The following speech by Prime Minister Paul Keating, at Port Moresby on Anzac Day 1992, captures the significance claimed for Kokoda. The circumstances under which it was fought marked a turning point in Australia's international relations. Australia had turned from Great Britain, the traditional 'protector' and mother country, and looked to the United States of America, the only Allied nation in any position to assist Australia in what looked set to be a fight for its life.
"The Australians who served here in Papua New Guinea fought and died, not in the defence of the old world, but the new world. Their world. They died in defence of Australia and the civilisation and values which had grown up there.
That is why it might be said that, for Australians, the battles in Papua New Guinea were the most important ever fought. They were fought in the most terrible circumstances. One correspondent wrote: "Surely no war was ever fought under worse conditions than these. Surely no war has ever demanded more of a man in fortitude."
They were fought by young men with no experience of jungle warfare. By the very young men of the militia with no experience of war at all. They were fought by airmen of outstanding courage, skill and dedication. They were fought against a seasoned, skillful and fanatical enemy.
At Milne Bay the Australians inflicted on the Japanese their first defeat on land. Sir William Slim, who was then commanding the 14th Army in Burma, wrote: "It was Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese army: those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember."
On the Kokoda Trail it was again the young and inexperienced militia men - this time of the 39th and 53rd battalions - later reinforced with soldiers of the 7th Division, who fought gallantly - and eventually won.
When it seemed that Papua New Guinea would fall, when it seemed it would be another Singapore, another Rabaul, these troops gallantly held out and finally drove the enemy back to the sea. These were the heroic days of Australia's history.
Summary of Units Engaged
Papuan Infantry Battalion, 2nd/14th Battalion, 2nd/16th Battalion, 2nd/25th Battalion, 2nd/27th Battalion, 2nd/31st Battalion, 2nd/2nd Battalion, 2nd/3rd Battalion, 2nd/33rd Battalion, 36th Battalion (Militia), 39th Battalion (Militia), 49th Battalion (Militia), 53rd Battalion (Militia), 55/53rd Battalion (Militia), 55th Battalion (Militia), 2nd/1st Battalion, 2nd/1st Pioneer Battalion, 2nd/6th Independent Company, 2nd/6 Armoured Regiment, 7th Division Cavalry Regiment, 2nd/4th, 2nd/6th and 14th Field Ambulance, 2nd/5th and 2nd/6th Field Squadrons, Royal Australian Engineers.
AWM link https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/kokoda/ (www.awm.gov.au)
'Those Ragged Bloody Heroes' Brune Peter 1951-, Allen & Unwin 1991 ISBN 1 74114 559 7
Compiled by Steve Larkins 2014