"The Battles of the Beachheads" - Buna / Gona / Sanananda - New Guinea November 1942 - January 1943 (see video link in the sidebar)
Buna / Gona / Sanananda were the points at which the Japanese had landed on the north coast of New Guinea in mid 1942 and from where they launched their southward advance on Port Moresby.
The campaign began as a pursuit of beleaguered Japanese forces retreating from Imita Ridge overlooking Port Moresby, then Kokoda, into their northern beachheads. With their supply lines over-extended and the tide of battle having turned against them, the Japanese retreated as the Australians pushed them back across the Owen Stanley Ranges. They withdrew into well prepared defensive positions, replete with overhead protection from artillery fire and 'fire lanes' arranged with interlocking arcs of machine gun fire through which assaulting troops would have to advance.
The landing of more Japanese reinforcements meant the numbers were stacking up against the joint American and Australian force. Now the Allies were at the end of their supply lines and the ocean to the north was still contested. Complicating the Allies’ situation was the fact that their operations were being directed by a Headquarters in Brisbane, Australia, by US General Douglas MacArthur with his Deputy, General Sir Thomas Blamey, initially in 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. Thus everything was conducted in haste, applying frontal assaults 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; decimation of the attacking forces. 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 in 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 as the Japanese defenders were availed of few options once Allied Air power compromised the Japanese capacity to resupply from the sea.
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 line. Aircraft were increasingly relied upon for re-supply. Most importantly they lacked artillery in the numbers required to reduce the Japanese defences.
Another factor in this campaign was a 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. 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',
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 attack. On 16th November, the Australian militia 30th Brigade which had only two untried Battalions, the 55th/53rd and the 49th (the 39th was 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.
The need for haste as determined by the Headquarters in Brisbane, dictated proceedings. Frontal attacks against well prepared defences, which are inadequately supported by indirect (mortar and artillery) fire, are generally very costly for the attackers. More so when the approaches were across flat open ground. Thus it was at Gona.
After numerous costly attempts had been thwarted by the Japanese defences, it was the 39th Battalion (a Militia unit) 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.
Reflecting the attrition they had sustained, two of the 21st Brigade's Battalions had been merged resulting in a composite 2nd/27th and 2nd/16th force.
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 held 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.
Not long after this, following Sanananda, 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.
Buna was an even tougher nut to crack. 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.
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".
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 'Old Strip' which was heavily defended 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 used in a ground role 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.
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 or 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)
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 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.
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
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
(1) "A Bastard of a Place", Peter Brune, Page 526