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Milne Bay; the beginning of the end in the Pacific

"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 invincibility of the Japanese army".

Field-marshal 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.

1943-04-20. 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.

Milne 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. Milne 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 landing.

Milne 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 engineers. Milne 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 MacArthurís 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 Curtinís 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 Australiaís dependence on the USA for war equipment it could not itself provide. He therefore tended not to support his Australian commanders against MacArthurís 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 force.

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.

Papua, 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 Clowesí 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 Alliesí 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.

The Battle of Milne Bay.
August 1942

On the 24th of August 1942 the Milne Bay garrison consisted of two infantry brigades, one CMF and the other, which had just arrived, AIF.

In addition there were a few base units, two squadrons of R.A.A.F. fighters and a detachment of R.A.A.F. bombers.


P-40 Kittyhawk fighters of the RAAF, Milne bay.

The garrison was commanded by Major-General C.A. Clowes, who had assumed command on the 21st of August, just four days before the battle.

The Japanese began their invasion at 11.30 pm on 25 August. The 1,202 members of the Special Naval Landing Force came ashore at Ahioma instead of, as planned, further west near Rabi. This left them a very difficult approach to the airstrip (No. 3) at Gili Gili.

The Japanese were reinforced a few days later by another 1,200 troops, bringing their total strength to about 2,400 men.

An Australian standing patrol of the 61st battalion skirmished with the invaders when they came ashore at Ahioma and by dawn the Japanese had reached the battalion's main position around the K.B. Mission. However, the Japanese suffered a serious setback when their base area was heavily attacked at daylight by RAAF Kittyhawk aircraft.

Squadron Leader K.W. 'Bluey' Truscott taxi's a Kittyhawk at Milne Bay 'airfield'
At 10pm in the moonlight of the night of 26-27 August, the Japanese attacked in force and after a long and ferocious fight the Australians withdrew to the Gama River. 

On the night of 28 August, the enemy delivered another heavy attack, thrusting aside the defenders and advancing to the airstrip where they encountered the 25th Battalion which was joined by the 61st.


The Japanese attack on Milne Bay coming at the same time as a serious situation on the Kokoda Trail, was causing concern to MacArthur and he expressed dissatisfaction to Blamey who was instructed on 28 August that Clowes must 'at once clear the north shore at Milne Bay, without delay.'

The Japanese attacked again on 31 August, charging wildly three times across the open in attempts to seize the No. 3 airstrip. The attackers were bunched together as they charged and many fell before a hail of fire. Clowes then ordered the 2/12th Battalion to attack along the north shore where they killed 70 Japanese. The Australians continued to press on against the stubborn enemy and on 4 September, Corporal J. French of the 2/9th Battalion won the Victoria Cross when he advanced alone to silence three enemy machine-gun posts. He was cut down in front of the third gun.

The Japanese sent warships to help their embattled troops, but on 5 September the Japanese Navy was told to 'try to get them out.' Japanese reinforcements were going to Guadalcanal. No more were to be sent to Milne Bay. Next day the Japanese called their invasion off. Some 1318 Japanese were rescued by naval vessels while 311 were killed and 700 missing. The Allied estimate was 750 Japanese killed at Milne Bay. The Australians had 373 battle casualties. Of these 161 were either killed or missing.

Milne Bay was a Japanese debacle and an Australian triumph. The victory had a tonic effect on Allied forces far beyond New Guinea. For the first time in the Pacific war a Japanese amphibious invading force had been turned back after it had established a beachhead. In the broad canvas of the Pacific war it was not a major victory. But it was significant. It was an example too of Australians working together as a team. The AIF and the Militia fought side by side with the support of RAAF pilots whose dedicated efforts the soldiers greatly admired. Australian Militia, who were the first to engage the enemy at Milne Bay had proved themselves in a vital test, as had the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda track.

 

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