Buna / Gona / Sanananda "The Battle of the Beachheads" - Papua (World War 2, 22 November 1942 to 11 January 1943)

About This Campaign

The Battles for the Beachheads – Buna, Gona, Sanananda New Guinea November 1942 to January 1943

The ‘Battles for the Beachheads’ were the final phase of the Kokoda Campaign, and began as a pursuit of Japanese forces, which, having reached Imita Ridge overlooking Port Moresby, had over-extended their supply lines, while the Australians had fallen back on theirs.

Background

As Lieutenant General Rowell had originally foreseen, the Japanese would eventually face the same problems that had beset the Australians early in the campaign.  The tide of battle turned against the Japanese, with Australian troops having at last sorted out their own supply challenges.  Of course in the meantime, Rowell had been sacked (along with two of his senior Commanders) by Blamey, himself under pressure by the ever-ambitious US General Douglas McArthur in his Brisbane HQ,

Importantly at this stage, the Australians had also for the first time in the campaign, been provided with their own artillery fire support in the form of the locally designed ‘short’ version of the ubiquitous 25 pounder field gun which for  enabling them to over-match the Japanese 75mm mountain guns that had given the Japanese such a tactical advantage early in the campaign.

The withdrawal was ordered by the Japanese High Command largely because of the priority attached to what was happening at Guadalcanal in the nearby Solomon Islands.  So, the Japanese retreated as the Australians pushed them back across the Owen Stanley Ranges.  The Japanese Commander, General Hori, lost his life in a river crossing during the retreat.

They withdrew into well-prepared defensive positions, in the sites where they had first landed in July 1942, at Buna Gona and Sanananda.  It was a formidable defensive position, augmented by the swampland which characterised the area.  It has the effect of channelling any advancing enemy into a limited number of lines of approach. The Japanese had learned their craft very well indeed.  Replete with overhead protection they were virtually immune to Allied Field Gun artillery fire.

 

Fig 1.  Gona to the left, Sanananda in the centre and Buna to the right.  The Allied Commanders (in Brisbane) grossly under-estimated the terrain, Japanese defences and the numbers of defenders. By US Army - Downloaded from [1] part of The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32140336

Most ominously for the attacking Allied troops, they had prepared lethal ‘fire lanes' in the surrounding vegetation and swampland, arranged with interlocking arcs of machine gun fire through which assaulting troops would have to advance with deadly consequences.

The landing of more Japanese reinforcements meant the numbers were stacking up against the Allies, the Americans having committed two Divisions to the looming contest, as did the Australians.

The boot was once again on the other foot in terms of Supply lines too.  The Japanese were virtually living on top of theirs.  Now the Allies were at the end of their supply lines and the ocean to the north was still contested.  Aerial re-supply was vital but at the mercy of the weather.

Further complicating the Allies’ situation was the fact that their operations were still being directed by Headquarters in Brisbane, Australia, by US General Douglas MacArthur.  His Deputy, General Sir Thomas Blamey, re-located to Port Moresby.

Crisis of Command?

Just as had occurred during the Kokoda operations, MacArthur and his Headquarters had no grasp of the conditions in which their troops were fighting.  McArthur in particular, applied enormous pressure on his subordinate commanders to hurry things up, because he saw the Guadalcanal as ‘competition’ for kudos and claims for more resources with his superior Headquarters in the USA.

Thus, everything was conducted in haste.  Frontal assaults were ordered on well defended and protected enemy positions in broad daylight over open ground.  They then repeated it, while apparently expecting a result other than what had happened previously.  The attacking troops were decimated.

The American troops committed to this operation, the US 32nd Division, were inexperienced, reluctant to move and initially at least, largely ineffective. 

MacArthur, always hyper-ambitious and keenly aware of perceptions in Washington, had told the senior US commander on the ground, General Harding to "Take Buna today at all costs", on November 21.  Later when Harding was relieved, MacArthur ordered his successor General Robert Eichelberger "Go out there, Bob, and take Buna or don't come back alive".  He later moderated this line, promising Eichelberger a Distinguished Service Cross and a citation in a press releases of which McArthur was so enamoured.

Time was of the essence, at least in General Douglas MacArthur's mind.  It seems it was more about Public Relations than sound strategy. 

Why this was so can only be speculated upon, as the Japanese defenders were availed of few options once Allied Air power compromised the Japanese capacity to resupply from the sea.  Neither did their overhead protection shield them against aerial bombing.

The Plan

The initial plan called for the US 32nd Division to take Buna, and for the Australian 7th Division to attack Gona and Sanananda.  While the Americans were fresh, they were totally inexperienced.  One US Regiment had come across the Owen Stanleys, without contacting the enemy, but were in total disarray.  

The Australians, on the other hand were exhausted, having fought their way across the Ranges, and now they were at the end of their supply lines.  

Aircraft were increasingly relied upon for re-supply, but often disrupted by adverse weather.  Most importantly the artillery they had recently received, was in insufficient quantity and inadequate target effect to reduce the Japanese defences.

Another factor in this campaign was the significant level of tension in the Higher Command structure that had arisen following the Kokoda campaign, with the sacking by General Blamey, of men like General Sydney Rowell, Brigadier Arnold Potts and others who had held the defence together as the Japanese threatened Port Moresby.  The hand of General MacArthur was felt heavily in this episode.  An inexperienced and insecure Australian Government were in awe of McArthur at the expense of their own very experienced senior commanders.

The palpable resentment of a headquarters far removed from the reality of the fighting and the conditions under which the campaign was conducted soured relationships for a long time.  Not cited explicitly in this article, readers with an interest in this topic are referred to an excellent analysis by Dr David Horner 'Crisis of Command', 

The Reality

At Sanananda, lying between Buna and Gona, the Australian 16th Brigade (2nd /1st , 2nd /2nd  and 2nd /3rd  Battalion) was at a stalemate, facing a larger Japanese force in well prepared positions and having only about 800 men fit to fight.  Elements of the American 126th Regiment hung on grimly to a roadblock position ('Huggins Roadblock') behind a Japanese forward defence position, preventing their resupply and reinforcement.  They were under continuous counter-attack.

Fig 2.  A patrol makes its way through swamp tupical of the entire stretch of coastline in which the Beachhead Battles were fought. AWM 013971

On 16th November, the Australian militia 30th Brigade which comprised two as-yet-untried Battalions, the 55th /53rd and the 49th  (the valiant 39th that had conducted the initial delaying defence of the Kokoda track had been detached to Gona), but they were able to push up through the exhausted 2nd /1st  Battalion of the 16th Brigade and despite being hit by their own mortar and artillery fire as a result of radio failure, they briefly broke through the Japanese defences, but could not hold the ground.  With casualties among their key leadership causing momentum to wilt, the attack stalled.

Another militia unit, the 36th Battalion had been flown in from Port Moresby and it was moved in along with elements of the 2nd /7th Cavalry Regiment operating as infantry in an effort to force the issue.  Despite their best endeavours only very limited progress was made, but the casualty toll was growing alarmingly.  

At Gona, to the west,  the Australian 25th Brigade  (2nd /25th , 2nd /31st  and 2nd /33rd  Battalions) under Brigadier Ken Eather, were tasked with capturing the Mission, around which the defences were arranged.  As casualties mounted, the 21st Brigade  (2nd /14th , 2nd /16th  and 2nd /27th   under Brigadier Ivan Dougherty took over.

McArthur’s concocted need for haste dictated proceedings.  Frontal attacks against well prepared defences, inadequately supported by indirect (mortar and artillery) fire, are generally very costly for the attackers.  More so when the approaches are across  flat open ground.  Thus it was at Gona.  

After numerous costly attempts had been thwarted by the Japanese defences, and reflecting the losses they had sustained, two of the 21st Brigade's Battalions had been merged resulting in a composite 2nd /27th and 2nd /16th force.  Now it was the 39th Battalion of Kokoda fame, under its redoubtable CO Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, that succeeded where others had failed. 

The 39th had earlier been tasked to march on Sanananda, until it was realised the route was not viable.  Returning to the vicinity of Gona to regroup, Honner had a fortuitous opportunity to view the approaches to Gona from a different perspective.  He had determined that there was a covered approach.  Subsequently being attached to the 21st Brigade, the very same Brigade that had relieved his hard-pressed Battalion at Isurava on the Kokoda Track, the 39th was about to return the favour.

After he had been ordered to commit to a futile and costly attack which exacted a heavy toll of his 'D' Company, Honner managed to convince the Brigade Commander (Brigadier Ivan Dougherty) to allow him to use the covered approach he had seen earlier.

Honner executed a flanking attack through a swamp that they secured overnight, right under supporting artillery fire, penetrating the defences at last.  Demonstrating more imagination and initiative than many in the higher levels of command, the 39th's tactical opportunism finally broke the position open and allowed its reduction.  On December the 9th, the famous catch cry 'Gona's Gone' was transmitted.

Buna was an even tougher nut to crack.  The Japanese had anti-aircraft guns firing in a ground role which were more than a match for the light armoured vehicles of the Allies.

After the 32nd Division had bogged down in what Australian General George Vasey described as 'masterly inactivity', Eichelberger set about re-organising and regrouping his troops.  At one point an attack was put in using Bren Gun carriers as proxy armoured fighting vehicles but they were all destroyed.

Reinforced with the Australian 18th Brigade, 2nd /10th  and 2nd /12th  Battalions under Brigadier Wooten, and some M3 Stuart light tanks all brought up from Milne Bay on 8th December, General Eichelberger now made another attempt with what was called 'Warren Force'.   On December the 18th, with the 2nd /9th  Battalion leading supported by seven M3 tanks from the 2nd /6th  Armoured Regiment,  the Australians were directed to capture an area bounded by Cape Endaiadere, the air strips and the Government Station.

Fig 3.  An Australian NCO directs the fire of an M3 tank during the attack. AWM

General Eichelberger was glowing in his praise of the results "It was a spectacular and dramatic assault and a brave one.  From the New Strip to the Sea was about half a mile. American troops wheeled to the west in support and other Americans were assigned to mopping up duties.  Behind the tanks went the fresh and jaunty Aussies, tall, moustached, erect with their blazing Tommy Guns winging before them.  Steadily tanks and infantrymen advanced through the spare high coconut trees, seemingly impervious to the heavy opposition."   Sadly, they weren't impervious and casualties mounted again but they gained ground and were able to hold it.

Australian General Herring was perhaps more circumspect in his despatch to Blamey. "The outstanding factors so far are three: The first is Wooten's leadership.  The second is the value of the tanks.....and the third the capacity of seasoned AIF troops".

Fig 3.  1943-01-02. Papua, Giropa Point, east of Buna. Australian manned M3 General Stuart tanks attacking Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2nd /12th Battalion, fire on 25 Japanese (not seen), using Bren Mk 1 machine guns and SMLE no 1 Mk III* rifles, who are fleeing from a wrecked pillbox 150 yards away. The pillbox was destroyed by the M3 tank shown here. In the foreground are Private J. Searle and Corporal G. Fletcher. This photograph was taken during the actual fighting. Australian War Memorial, copyright expired, public domain. Image AWM 014001.

However, they had a long way to go yet, with the ultimate goal being to link up with 'Urbana Force' which had been tasked with the capture of Buna Mission itself.   This meant the clearance of the remaining significant stretch of real estate to Giropa Point, and the heavily defended  'Old Strip' and the Government Station.

A subsequent attack directed by Wooten, had the 2nd /10th  Battalion and the remaining four tanks attacking along the line of the ‘Old Strip’, which proved to be not particularly well-advised but once again the imperative of haste made its effect felt.  The 2nd /10th pushed further forward for half an hour until Japanese anti aircraft guns engaged them and in a matter of minutes the tanks were all knocked out and the attack faltered.  The 2nd /10th went in again on Christmas Day and Boxing Day but their numbers were reduced to about one third of their normal strength and they sustained heavy casualties.  Finally Wooten committed the 2nd /12th Battalion supported by more tanks to clear the area out to Giropa Point.

 

Fig 5. 1943-01-14. Genrals Blamey and Eichelberger (far left) inspect a Japanese twin mount 25mm Anti Aircraft Gun defending the 'Old Strip' at Buna.  It was guns like this that inflicted heavy casualties on the tanks and soldiers of the 2nd/10th Battalions around Christmas Day 1942.  This gun was captured intact and subsequently used on Japanese defences. AWM 014104

The 2nd /10th lost more men and officers at Buna than in the rest of their time in New Guinea, and many other battalions experienced similar losses.

On the 2nd  January 1943,  the Americans of 'Urbana Force' managed to overcome the Japanese defenders at the Buna mission and link up with the Australians.  In 16 days the 18th Brigade had lost 55 officers and 808 men killed or wounded.  The Americans had sustained nearly 1900 casualties.  Japanese dead were tallied at 1,390.

Now the focus switched back to Sanananda, to resolve the deadlock.

The most telling feature of the area was the terrain; swampland interspersed with small elevated areas from which the Japanese could pour supporting fire into the ‘Huggins Roadblock’ area, which the Americans had managed to penetrate and hold in the face of relentless Japanese counter attacks.  But they could not break out.

By early December, the 16th Brigade had lost nearly 85% of its strength due to a combination of battle casualties and disease.

General Vasey decided to suspend operation until Buna had been taken and reinforcements could be brought in from Port Moresby.

On 2 January 1943, the advance began again on different approaches.  The 18th Brigade began their advance on 12 January but made limited progress and sustained over 100 casualties.  Despite the attackers’ lack of success the Japanese began to withdraw from their forward positions that night.  The Japanese continued a phased withdrawal, and fighting continued for another six days before Sanananda village was in Allied hands.  Remnant Japanese forces were surrounded and another three days (21st January) of fighting , resistance ceased. Having cost more than 2000 Allied casualties and some 1500 Japanese troops killed.

Not long after this, in the ultimate act of ignominy, the 39th Battalion was disbanded along with the rest of its original parent 30th Brigade, which had been the backbone of the defence of Kokoda until the arrival of the 2nd AIF units.  It was an appalling way to treat the “Chockos” of the Militia who, rather than 'melting' as had been inferred by their unwanted sobriquet,  had resolutely held the line trading their lives for time in the early stage of the Kokoda campaign.

 

Retrospective

The themes of unseemly haste, compromised tactical judgment that resulted in heavy casualties, exacerbated by the effects of the climate and living conditions, permeate personal accounts of this campaign like few others.

It took an unnecessarily fearful toll of very experienced soldiers' lives, including many of the men who had been victorious against the Japanese in the Kokoda campaign, and many of whom had previously served in North Africa. 

The adjutant of the 2nd /10th Battalion, Captain Theo Schmedje had this to say;

"You've got no idea what it's like to lose blokes like Ifould and Bunny Wilson because of the terrible tactical blunders, and this is what I can never forgive Brigade for.  Nobody's got any idea of tactics....alright we'll hold the line there but we'll go around their flanks !  But get behind them! Then you've got them!  It's our operation!  I never knew him (Wooten) to interfere like this.... From then onwards you’ll appreciate that our companies were reduced to Platoons.  And this broke my heart, I've hated Buna.  To think of it ever since...all those blokes that died.  It's tragic; I've never got over it.(1)

Years later, veterans of the 2nd /10th  and 2nd /27th  Battalions described the Beachhead battles as the worst experience of their war, very much affirming the title of Peter Brune's definitive book on the New Guinea campaign; "A Bastard of a Place".

 

Steve Larkins 2015.  Updated 2018, 2020

Bibliography

1.   "A Bastard of a Place", Peter Brune, 2003, Alexander & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, ISBN 1 74114 403 5

2.   "The Beachhead Battles" Peter Charlton,  'War Against Japan 1942-45', 1989, Time Life Books ISBN 0 949118 27 3

Footnote

      (1)   "A Bastard of a Place", Peter Brune, Page 526

 

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Names

Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

LLOYD, Paul Acton

Service number NX103954
Lieutenant
2nd/9th Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 23 Nov 1918

BLAKE, William Dennis

Service number SX15789
Private
2nd/6th Independent Company (Cavalry Commando Squadron)
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 1 Mar 1920

BEATTY, Patrick Harley David

Service number QX20887
Corporal
2nd/31st Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 7 Aug 1917

MARKS, Roland

Service number SX5916
Private
2nd/27th Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 25 Mar 1920

HODGSON, Charles Lewis

Service number SX950
Lieutenant
2nd/10th Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 7 Oct 1918

BURTON, Lindsay James

Service number SX6432
Lance Corporal
2nd/10th Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 28 Nov 1919

SCRUSE, James Edward Lenard

Service number NX78131
Private
55/53 (amalgamated) Infantry Battalion AMF
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 14 Jan 1922

LUCK, Albert

Service number SX3586
Lance Corporal
2nd/27th Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 11 May 1921