"Australian troops had, at Milne Bay, inflicted on the Japanese, their first undoubted defeat on land. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies, it was the Australians who first broke the spell of Japanese invincibility."
Field Marshal Sir William Slim
Milne Bay is located at the eastern extremity of the island of New Guinea. With a good harbour and strategic location, it dominated the maritime NE approaches to Port Moresby and extended the reach of land based aircraft over neighbouring island groups and out over the Coral Sea.
Accordingly, as Japanese ambitions took them to New Britain, the north coast of New Guinea and an overland thrust via Kokoda to Port Moresby, and to Guadalcanal, Milne Bay was a strategically valuable objective.
It had been developed as an Allied base, hosting three airstrips in addition to a sheltered harbour.
The Battle of the Coral Sea in early May, although a strategic (if not a tactical) victory for the Allies, made very clear the vulnerability of Port Moresby and the importance of Milne Bay.
The land-based thrust across the Owen Stanley Rage via Kokoda began in July 1942, and by late August, things were looking bleak for the Australian militia holding 'The Track'. They were engaged in a fighting withdrawal, outnumbered, with inexperienced troops, inadequately armed, equipped and supported, when another front opened.
Map illustrating the intended Japanese thrusts to take Port Moresby. https://www.3squadron.org.au/subpages/MilneBayBattle.htm
By this stage Milne Bay was, unbeknown to the Japanese, defended by two infantry Brigades. The Militia 7th Brigade (9th, 25th and 61st Battalions) and its supporting arms and services, had arrived in July and by early August was reinforced by the the seasoned 18th Brigade recently returned from the Middle East. It was commanded by Brigadier George Wootten and comprised three infantry battalions (2nd/9th, 2nd/10th and 2nd/12th), two anti-aircraft batteries, a field battery of artillery and a battery of anti-tank guns. Together with US Engineers the total Allied contingent numbered about 9,000, commanded by Major General Cyril Clowes. Two RAAF fighter squadrons (No.s 75 and 76 Squadrons), were based at the airstrip. They had a ground attack capability which would later be used to good effect.
The defences were oriented along the northern side of the Bay. The terrain of Milne Bay was difficult. A narrow, swampy coastal strip, covered in dense jungle and no wider than a few kilometres, leads up to steep mountains to the north. The climate is hot and humid with torrential rain likely to wash out any roads being constructed making vehicle movement heavily constrained.
Nevertheless, the relatively flat areas around the airstrips and the KB Mission Station saw much of the fighting.
The Japanese Landing
Japanese intelligence had seriously underestimated Allied strength in the region. At midnight on 26 August 1942, 2,000 Japanese marines were landed on the northern side of the bay about 11km east of the airfields, in an operation that was intended to be repeated against Port Moresby.
As the Japanese ships had made their way towards Milne Bay they had been interdicted, strafed and bombed by No.s 75 and 76 Squadrons. This caused about 350 men of the invasion fleet to be marooned near Goodenough Island and they took no further part in the Battle. Once the main force was ashore, the RAAF redoubled their efforts.
The Japanese, believing the airstrips to be lightly defended, advanced towards them in spite of heavy losses. The Japanese, initially achieving local numerical superiority and with a force including light tanks, overwhelmed the first Australian units they encountered, the 61st, 25th and the 2/10th Battalion between the Gama river, KB Mission and the airstrips, forcing them back.
Situation maps - Milne Bay
That the Japanese had tanks was a shock to the Australians who had thought the swampy terrain of the area made the use of tanks impossible. The Australians lacked comparable armoured vehicles although they did have two batteries of anti tank guns, one in each Brigade. Moving them around however, was difficult in the extreme.
On the night of 27th August this situation came to a head when the South Australian 2nd/10th Australian Infantry Battalion, its men veterans of the Siege of Tobruk, were sent forward to establish a blocking position in the vicinity of KB Misssion, while the 61st and 25th Battalions were withdrawn. When the Japanese attacked with tanks at 20:00 (8:00pm) that night, their fields of fire were illuminated by well protected coaxial lights on their machine guns, "Many grand lads tried to extinguish these tank headlights that night, and not a few made the supreme sacrifice in doing so..."(i), their 'Sticky Bomb' anti tank grenades, with which they were expected to stop them, would not stick to the hulls of the tanks. Not without trying. The battalion history records that two men "These two, (LT) Mackie and (Sgt) Spencer were outstanding in their efforts to stem the enemy tanks". (ii) The 2nd/10th sustained heavy casualties once the tanks realised the Australians had nothing with which to penetrate their armour.
The success of the Japanese tanks, and their accompanying infantry, in penetrating his perimeter led the CO, LTCOL Dobbs, to order a withdrawal behind a creek line to their rear. Control broke down particularly when the Battalion 2IC, Major Martin, who was to have controlled the re-organisation at the new position, was killed. "Thus, battle may be said to have swept over the top of the 2nd/10th Battalion leaving it split in small parties....". (iii) Two tanks (presumably the same two that had caused the initial breakthrough - Ed) and an entire Japanese Battalion swept past paying little attention to the melee in which the 2nd/10th Battalion was still engaged. Amazingly, a small party of 2nd/10th men remained in the vicinity of the Mission until the following morning and dealt with small parties of Japanese there before making their way back to the airstrips, skirting wide to the north to do so.
Australian troops advance past bogged Japanese light tanks.
The Milne Bay rain and mud stopped the tanks where the infantry's "sticky bombs" had failed. AWM 013320
The Japanese reached the edge of No. 3 Airstrip in the early morning. Here they halted, awaiting reinforcements. An attempt to re-supply them by sea from a destroyer had failed.
With continued torrential rain, the Japanese tanks soon became a liability in the boggy conditions, and were immobilised.
The Japanese assaulted the Airfield’s defences at dawn on 31 August 1942 but the Australian defensive perimeter, manned by the 61st and 25th Battalions, who had been able to withdraw behind the 2nd/10th Battalion to establish their defensive positions, held. Fire support from artillery, aircraft and dogged defence turned the tide. The Japanese suffered 300 men killed and withdrew the next morning.
The Japanese were forced into retreat, pursued by the 2/12th and the 2/9th Australian infantry battalions. The withdrawing Japanese put up determined resistance. During this phase, on the afternoon of 4 September 1942 , Corporal John French, of the 2nd/9th Battalion ordered his men to take cover after they were pinned down by fire from several Japanese machine guns. He then went forward alone and silenced one of the guns with grenades. Then, armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, he assaulted the second post firing as he went. Although badly hit, he continued his attack and his men heard the enemy gun fall silent. When they came up they found French dead in front of the third enemy post. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery.
From 4 to 7 September, less than half of the original Japanese landing force were evacuated. 167 Australians and 14 Americans had died during the Battle of Milne Bay.
The net effect was that the Japanese had suffered their first land defeat of the war, and at the hands of Australian troops. Attention would now turn to the Kokoda Track and to the Americans on Guadalcanal.
After the war, the Australian Army awarded a Battle Honour titled "Milne Bay" to a number of the units that took part. The units chosen were the 9th, 25th, 61st, 2/9th, 2/10th and 2/12th Infantry Battalions. The two RAAF fighter squadrons that had taken part in the fighting were also singled out for praise by the Australian commanders for their role in the battle. Rowell stated: "the action of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF on the first day was probably the decisive factor", a view Clowes endorsed in his own report.
For more information, see https://www.awm.gov.au/military-event/E345/ (www.awm.gov.au)
Compiled by Steve Larkins Sep 2021
1. Allchin, F 1993, Purple And Blue, 10th Battalion AIF Association, 4th Edtion Nov 2008 Digital Reporoductions SA ISBN 0 909133 03 4
(i) p. 252
(iii) p. 256
2. Brune P. 2003 'A Bastard of a Place', Allen and Unwin, ISBN 1 74114 403 5
2. Horner D.M. 1978 Crisis of Command, Australian National University Press ISBN 0 7081 1345 1
3. 'Milne Bay', Battle for Australia Association available at http://www.battleforaustralia.asn.au/BAMilneBay.php
4. Battle of Milne Bay Wikepedia available at 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Milne_Bay