troops had, at Milne Bay, inflicted on the Japanese their first
undoubted defeat on land.
of us may forget that, of all the allies, it was the Australians who
first broke the invincibility of the Japanese army".
Sir William Slim,
Defeat Into Victory
In late August, unable to move further down the Kokoda Trail, the
Japanese decided to make a second line of attack on Port Moresby. On 25-26
August they landed at Milne Bay on the extreme eastern tip of Papua, about
370 kilometres from Port Moresby. Although under great logistical stress
with the fighting on the Kokoda Trail, Allied forces were ready for them.
Unlike the protracted Kokoda campaign, the Battle of Milne Bay ended in
just over ten days.
New Guinea. Milne Bay.
Hills fall sheer to the water and are
covered with kunai grass from three to ten feet high. The hill
slopes were littered with the bodies of Japanese who tried to
escape after they unsuccessfully attempted to take Milne Bay. (Negative
by N. Brown).
Australian and United States forces had been active in the area since
June. These were the 55th Australian Infantry Battalion and the 46th
United States Engineer Battalion. The 7th Australian Infantry Brigade
Group (ACMF), made up of the 9th, 25th, 61st Battalions plus anti-tank and
anti-aircraft artillery, arrived on 11 July. These forces were joined by
II/43rd US Engineer Regiment and other groups of Australian ground forces.
Bay, Papua. 1942-09.
One of the barges, used by the Japanese in their unsuccessful
attempt to land at Milne Bay, grounded on the foreshore and
wreckage of Japanese equipment on beach. Note water-filled bomb
crater in foreground.
Bay, Papua. 1942-09. A
Japanese type 95 Ha-Go light tank that was used against the
Australian forces at Milne Bay. Two men of the AIF are seen
closely examining it.
The American Engineers were constructing three airstrips on the swampy
coastal strip between the sea and the mountains. On 25 July two RAAF P-40
Kittyhawk squadrons, the 75th and the 76th, arrived. There was also part
of an RAAF squadron equipped with Hudson bombers. Aircraft played a vital
part in the outcome of the battle. The total force of Australians and
Americans in Papua at this time numbered 9,000. For the first time the
army, navy and air forces came under one commander, the Australian
Major-General Cyril Clowes, a Duntroon graduate.
When it appeared likely that the Japanese would land in the Milne Bay
region the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade
of the 7th Australian Division, a division
which had recently returned from the Middle East, was sent in to reinforce
the Allied forces already there. It was commanded by Brigadier George
Wootten and comprised three infantry battalions, two anti-aircraft
batteries, a field battery of artillery and a battery of anti-tank guns.
From 4 August Japanese aircraft raided the station in preparation for the
Bay, Papua. 1942-09. One
of the Japanese invasion barges used in their abortive landing
attempt at Milne Bay, now salvaged and put into use by Australian
Bay, Papua. 1942-10-01. A
light gun used by the Japanese during an unsuccessful attack on
Milne Bay when they were repulsed by Australian militia forces.
Squadron Leader K W. Truscott of No76 RAAF squadron strafed and
killed the crew of the gun which was later presented to him by the
army. (Negative by Bagnall)
Like the Kokoda Trail, 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. The climate is hot and humid
with torrential rain likely to wash out any roads being constructed.
At his GHQ in Brisbane General MacArthur, who had expected a quick
victory in the Papuan Campaign, and who was never fully aware of the
difficult conditions in the war zone, put continued pressure on Clowes for
a greater effort. The Australian section of the Command saw many of
MacArthur’s demands as unreasonable. Lieut-General Sydney Rowell, who
had replaced Major-General Morris as GOC at Port Moresby, was told by
Major-General George Vasey, Deputy Chief of the Australian General Staff,
that GHQ "was like a bloody barometer up and down every two
minutes...". Part of this confusion arose from Prime Minister John
Curtin’s somewhat yielding attitude to MacArthur.
Curtin had stood up to
the British Prime Minister, Churchill, in demanding the return of
Australian troops to fight in the South West Pacific Area. In dealings
with MacArthur, however, Curtin was aware of Australia’s dependence on
the USA for war equipment it could not itself provide. He therefore tended
not to support his Australian commanders against MacArthur’s many
unreasonable demands. These demands were not based on personal
observations as MacArthur did not visit Papua until October 1942.
Australian Coastwatchers continued to be an important part of the war
effort. On islands dotted around the South West Pacific Area they radioed
vital information to the Allied command reporting enemy ship movements.
Admiral Nimitz, US Navy Supreme Commander, Pacific Ocean Area, later
praised their work in relation to the Solomons Campaign. "The
Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific."
On 24 August RAAF pilots and coastwatchers reported seven barges
approaching Goodenough Island, about 100 kilometres north of Milne Bay.
After the Japanese troops had disembarked, RAAF aircraft destroyed the
barges, thus marooning about 350 Japanese away from the main invasion
This Japanese force, escorted by cruisers and destroyers, landed in the
early hours of 26 August. They encountered fierce opposition from the RAAF
squadrons and the land artillery. Nevertheless many were able to land with
supplies and heavy equipment such as tanks. This emphasis on heavy
armaments was a shock to the Australians who had thought the swampy
terrain of the area made the use of tanks impossible. The Australians
lacked sufficient armoured vehicles among their weapons of war. On the
night of 27 August this situation forced the South Australian unit, 2/10th
Australian Infantry Battalion, after defending the strategically important
village of Gili Gili, to withdraw with heavy losses. With continued
torrential rain, however, the Japanese tanks soon became a liability in
the boggy conditions. Nevertheless, the relatively flat areas around the
airstrips and the KB Mission Station saw much of the fighting.
New Guinea. 1942-09-07.
A Japanese type 94, 37 millimetre anti-tank gun, captured at Milne
Bay, which weighs approximately 800 pounds and fires
armour-piercing and high-explosive shells. It is collapsible and
can be quickly taken to pieces and was possibly intended for use
as a mountain gun.
As well as the usual artillery and mortar fire of battle, the
Australians had to contend with enemy jungle snipers. In the darkness the
Japanese soldiers would call out orders in English, in some cases tricking
the Australians into betraying their positions.
By 31 August, Major-General Clowes’ forces were steadily resisting
the now tiring invaders. On the night of 31 August-1 September there was a
decisive battle around one of the airstrips resulting in heavy losses to
the Japanese. Australian artillery and mortar fire played a large part in
turning the fortunes of battle in the Allies’ favour. Australian
casualties numbered 373 (263 from
the AIF 18th Brigade).
One hundred and sixty-one were listed as being killed or missing. United
States forces serving at Milne Bay lost one killed in ground battles and
several more killed or wounded in air-raids. On 3 September the Japanese
started to withdraw and the first land victory in the Pacific War was won
by the Allied forces, the majority of whom were Australian.