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« Black ANZAC: decolonising war history through street art | Main | Air war over Papua New Guinea was like a fireworks display »

25 April 2019

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Rashmii Bell

Thank you for this article.

I learnt about the Battles of Eora Creek - Templeton's Crossing whilst on the Kokoda Trail with Adventure Kokoda in August 2018. That learning was via mini wartime history lectures presented by Trek Leader Major Charlie Lynn OAM OL.

There is but a small dirt encrusted plaques to commemorate and educate tourists trekkers as they pass on pilgrimage through Eora.

Sleeping in my comfortable tent, it was pretty emotional trying to imagine what it must have been like for the young men with far less than what I had in wartime conditions.

Osmar White's 'Green Armour' provides an important account and is necessary reading.

Eora Creek remains special to me as a significant site along the wartime Trail.

Paul Oates

Put succinctly, there at least two major lessons that should be learnt in both world wars.

One, Australia or Australasian troops must be commanded by their own generals and leaders.

Two, Australasian commanders must be prepared to stand up for their troops and not be brow beaten by egocentric foreign commanders and that the Australian government must be prepared to back up their own commanders.

The Australian government had at least learnt from the disasters of Gallipoli and the Western Front in WW1 but then capitulated to the US and egocentric MacArthur. Blamey should have stood up for his own people and by not doing so, lost the respect of his men.

Curtin's determination to bring our troops home from the Middle East to fight on our doorstep is another classic example. Churchill was prepared to sacrifice Australia while he thought only in terms of the European theatre.

Churchill's decision to send two battleships to defend Singapore without air cover was a classic example of 19th Century thinking be used in the 20th Century. Both ships were sunk by Japanese aircraft and Singapore lost with Australia's 8th Division being captured and thrown into POW camps.

Chris Overland

As an addendum to Ross's comments, it is not commonly understood that the Allied high command in Brisbane initially regarded the Kokoda Campaign as a serious defeat.

Unhindered by any real understanding of jungle warfare or the situation that had confronted the Australian troops, MacArthur, Blamey and others saw fit to sack Brigadier Arnold Potts who, in fact, had commanded probably the most brilliant fighting withdrawal in the entire Pacific War, and then send Blamey to remonstrate with the troops for what they saw as poor performance.

Quite rightly, these actions were and are regarded as disgraceful and grossly unjust.

When Blamey belatedly realised the scale of his misjudgement, he did try to convey to MacArthur and the American generals the true nature of the problems the Australian troops had confronted.

However, by then the imperious MacArthur had decided that the Australians were inferior troops. His American boys would show the Aussies how it was done!

MacArthur's insufferable hubris suffered a very nasty shock when the American troops first confronted the Japanese at Buna, where they suffered a serious defeat. They were, in truth, over confident, under trained, tactically inept and badly led.

A humiliated MacArthur sent General Robert Eichelberger to retrieve the situation with instructions to defeat the Japanese or not come back.

Eichelberger was one of the few American generals who had realised the importance of what Blamey and other experienced Australian commanders had been saying.

He cultivated a good relationship with them and paid attention to what they told him about the perils and pitfalls of jungle fighting. He then translated what he had learnt into new training and tactics for his thoroughly rattled troops.

The performance of the American troops thus began to improve rapidly and they were able to go on and defeat the Japanese, albeit at considerable cost in lives and materials.

MacArthur greatly disliked commanding an Allied force that he could not utterly dominate in both a political and military sense, and so effectively marginalised Australian troops for the rest of the war.

Thus they took no part in the later campaigns in the central Pacific, being left to clean up the Japanese outposts left untouched in MacArthur's island hopping strategy.

The Kokoda battles and the New Guinea campaign more broadly was, to my way of thinking, a hugely more important series of events for Australia than the ill fated Gallipoli campaign.

Our troops were truly fighting against an existential threat in New Guinea, which was not the case at Gallipoli. Also, they bore the brunt of the fighting, not the Americans, although the latter's logistical support was clearly critical.

Also, it is necessary to pay homage the Papua New Guineans whose brave and stoic support of the Australian troops during the Kokoda battles was critically important.

They were dragged into a war whose antecedents were incomprehensible to them and which involved bloodshed, disruption and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Overall, they preferred to support the Allies, if for no other reason than they knew them and their ways better than the Japanese and, much more significantly, because the latter proved to be unusually cruel and violent in their treatment of those Papua New Guineans who fell under their control.

Happily, the heroic reputation of the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels remains untarnished in Australian folklore. Long may it remain so.

Ross Wilkinson

I would also like to add a bit more commentary as this description misses some extremely important and historic points.

After the initial withdrawal from and the subsequent attempt to recapture Kokoda, 39 Battalion withdrew to the Isurava plateau and established a defensive perimeter there. After a short period of probing and minor skirmishing the Japanese launched a major assault against the Australian positions on 26 August, 1942.

During this initial assault the first elements of the AIF reinforcements, the 2/14 Battalion, arrived at Isurava and took up positions whilst under fire. Progressively over the next few days the remainder of the reinforcements arrived at the position comprising the rest of the 2/14 Battalion, the 2/16 Battalion and the 53 Battalion (CMF).

On 29 August the Japanese made a concerted thrust that penetrated the perimeter positions and threatened the 2/14 headquarters. A small group were ordered to counter-attack and Private Bruce Kingsbury charged towards the enemy force firing his Bren light machinegun. Scattering the enemy he paused to change magazines on the gun and was shot dead by a sniper. Kingsbury was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

The remnant force was ordered to withdraw from Isurava on 30 August but became fragmented. Some elements cut off behind the Japanese advance did not regain Australian lines for nearly three weeks.

While this fighting withdrawal was occurring along the Kokoda Track, the Japanese landed an invasion force at Milne Bay to establish a major airfield and to provide another attacking avenue to Port Moresby. However, the Australian Command was able to build a larger more concentrated force than was possible at Kokoda. This consisted of four CMF battalions, three AIF battalions, two RAAF fighter squadrons and Australian and US support forces.

On 4 September, Corporal John French of the 2/9 Battalion was leading a Section attack against enemy positions and encountered three machinegun posts. Single-handedly and armed with a Thompson sub-machinegun and hand grenades he attacked and silenced the three posts. Unfortunately he was mortally wounded attacking the third post. French was also posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Field Marshall Sir William Slim who was commanding British forces in Burma remarked that “of all the Allies, it was Australia who first broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese.” He also said that the news of the Milne Bay victory gave the British in Burma great heart.

The Kokoda Track fighting continued with a Japanese encircling movement seriously threatening Brigadier Potts and his HQ at Brigade Hill near Efogi and Menari. A relieving counter-attack on 8 September saw heavy losses to the 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions and continuing withdrawal to Iorabaiwa and the Imita Ridge.

So, the important points from this time are:

Supply – as supply movement forward was a huge problem for the Australians on the Kokoda Track, so it became a problem for the Japanese as they advanced.

Time – the invasion force commenced its advance to Kokoda and Port Moresby with only twelve days rations per soldier so capture of Port Moresby in as short a time as possible was critical given the Supply problem.

Weapons – the AIF reinforcements fresh from the Middle-East and Australia decided that the carriage of heavy machine-guns, mortars and artillery into the Owen Stanley mountains was an impossible task so left them behind in Port Moresby. On the other hand, the Japanese carried these weapons into the mountains and seriously outgunned the Australians during the early fighting.

Isurava – because of the time and supply factors explained above, the fighting withdrawal caused serious disruption to the Japanese timetable to the point that the Battle of Isurava is often referred to as “the battle that saved Port Moresby.” It has become the focal point for commemoration along the track with the impressive memorial jointly constructed by the PNG and Australian Governments

Victoria Cross – as the Territory of Papua was Australian territory at this time, of the 100 VCs awarded to Australians since its inception, Kingsbury’s and French’s VCs are the only ones awarded for acts of bravery on Australian soil.

Chris Overland

I wish to endorse Arthur Smedley's comments on the significance of the Battle of Milne Bay.

This battle came as a major shock to the Japanese, who for the first time were confronted by well supported, well led and very determined troops.

Their favoured tactical ploy, being the flanking manoeuvre, failed in the face of the Australian troops, who proved very adept at the required counter manoeuvring.

The availability of close air support was also very important as the Japanese freedom of manoeuvre was seriously curtailed during daylight hours, as was their ability to resupply their troops.

When, in desperation, the Japanese resorted to direct full frontal attacks, they were savagely mauled and repulsed with severe losses.

Milne Bay revealed that the Japanese had a limited tactical repertoire and were not the invincible jungle fighters that they cracked up to be by far too many people who should have known better.

It also should have alerted the over confident Japanese commanders that the comparatively easy victories of the past would not be forthcoming in future.

This small scale battle proved to be an ominous harbinger of things to come for the Japanese and deserves much more attention than it receives.

My suspicion is that it did not suit McArthur and the other American commanders to give much praise to the Australians for their success in what was undoubtedly a small battle.

Being utterly ignorant of the true nature of jungle fighting (at least, at that time), the senior American commanders, as well as Australia's Army Chief, General Thomas Blamey, then held a quite erroneous view that the Australians had not fought well at Kokoda.

While they belatedly realised their error, it may have led them to under estimate the achievement at Milne Bay at the time.

Lest we forget.

Arthur Smedley

One battle that has been missed is the Battle of Milne Bay, in August and September 1942, which I understand was the first defeat of the Japanese forces on land.

The Australian troops were mainly 18 to 22 year old Militia or reservists who had received only a couple of months training. They were generally discounted by more seasoned troops but their actions in Milne Bay demonstrated the Militia were a competent fighting force.

Rowan Callick wrote that the Battle of Milne Bay is “…far less celebrated [than Kokoda], but an equally momentous fight in Papua New Guinea. If it had been lost, it might well have undermined the eventual Kokoda victory.

“It was the historic turning point in the Pacific War, the Battle of Milne Bay — the first major victory by any Allied force over Japanese land forces. And it was won primarily by Australians, with American support.

“It was then that the tide started slowly to turn against the inexorable advance of the imperial army, which had seemed unbeatable.

The two crucial engagements — Kokoda and Milne Bay — took place during the same period, though the latter was shorter and sharper.”

According to the Australian War Memorial’s account, Milne Bay was “…a key stepping stone for the Japanese in their drive towards Port Moresby” as a potential base for Zero fighters to attack the capital.

The atrocities committed against villagers in the Milne Bay area including torture, rape and killing is documented in the War Crimes Trials and Investigations conducted by the former Chief Justice of Queensland, William Webb.
_________

Thanks for this important addition, Arthur - KJ

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