Largely overlooked for the more dramatic battles of 1941 (Greece, Crete, Syria, Tobruk) and 1942 (El Alamein, Papua New Guinea) the battles in New Guinea in 1943 are a portrait of Australia right at the absolute apex of its military prowess under the strong, capable stewardship of General Sir Thomas Blamey. At no other time in its short history has Australia fought with as many men. More importantly, for this brief time Australians fought as equals to a major world power. Bizarrely, this period in Australia’s military history is little understood and largely overlooked. This excellent book goes a long way to setting the record straight.
1942 had been a dramatic and frightening year. Singapore had fallen. Australia had struggled through the shock bombing of Darwin with its portent of a Japanese invasion of the top end. This threat had been made unlikely by the US Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the much more decisive Battle of Midway in June. With incredible tenacity and personal bravery, the first land victories over the Japanese had been delivered by diggers at Milne Bay and along the precipitous Kokoda Trail.
By the end of 1942, Australian forces had struggled mightily to approach the north coast of New Guinea and were engaged in ferocious battles at the disease infested Buna-Gona beaches. Those costly battles were near their end. During these battles US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander South West Pacific Area had been humiliated. MacArthur, the strong US commander had an extreme bias against all nations that weren’t American and forces that weren’t the US Army. In demanding quicker results he disparaged Australian fighting spirit but in turn witnessed his beloved US Army failing in the face of the enemy where the Australians hadn’t. The poor performance of the Americans should not have surprised him as they were a green force. Never-the-less their disappointing performance briefly gave Blamey crowing rights. More importantly, it also gave Blamey, in his always precarious capacity as Commander of Allied Land Forces, South West Pacific Area, just enough extra leverage over MacArthur to take on the major planning for the joint Australian-US operation to capture Lae on the mid-north coast of New Guinea. Blamey’s plan for taking Lae was adopted and run more or less as he conceived it.
While waiting for seaborne capability to build up and something close to air supremacy to be achieved Blamey set up a prolonged, artful deflection campaign to draw off Japanese defenders to an intermediate town, Salamaua with forces coming from the inland location of Wau. Wau had been accessed by a road cut through some of the most horrifically difficult geography from the Bulldog Landing on the south side of the Owen Stanley Ranges: a road that was built as insurance and was ultimately abandoned once sea routes to the north coast were open.
The seaborne invasion of Lae began on September 4 1943. The invasion was supported by another deflection which allowed the airborne capture Nadzab airfield close to Lae on the following day. The airfield was immediately pressed into service for ferrying in troops, artillery and supplies. Lae fell much quicker than anticipated. Unfortunately a substantial number of Japanese escaped and they were followed by Australian forces into the Markham and Ramu Valleys which ran into the Huon Peninsula to the north and north west. This operation ended in early 1944 with the capture of the whole Huon peninsula and Madang from the defending Japanese.
These are great achievements but they would not have been achieved if they did not climb a huge organisational, technical and systems mountain needed for the Allied forces to become an efficient and effective fighting force in one of the most hostile environments in the world in which to wage war. The Middle East had been tough but Papua New Guinea made the Middle East look like a holiday resort.
There had never been any problem with Australian fighting spirit. The problem had always been transport and supply. Kokoda had been a hard grinding battle because the diggers had to fight man to man with small arms in tough country without much supply. The situation had improved slightly once north of the Owen Stanley Range. By late 1942, with fighting at last close enough to beaches, Blamey was able to get some additional supplies to his forces by sea. Even so, it wasn’t enough.
Blamey kept up frantically harangued the Royal Australian Navy and the US Navy in a futile attempt to get more material to the forces fighting at Buna-Gona beaches. He was thwarted at almost every turn. In addition to there being a shortage of ships, there was a critical absence of accurate marine charts: some of the existing maps misplaced main islands as much as 10 km while there was almost a total absence of depth readings, location of shoals or information about harbours and potential landing beaches. No seafarer was going to take a big ship through such uncharted waters.
Blamey made do with barges and planes but not enough was getting through for proper combined arms warfare. Even when materials were delivered they would rot within days. Canvas tents rotted, shoes and clothes disintegrated, tin cans rusted, paper labels fell off tins and petrol had to be stored in rapidly rusting drums. Everything seemed to hold mosquito infested slime while the ground around was full of typhus spreading mites. Disease was a far greater threat than the Japanese. Just as the fighting had to change for the hostile environment, so did the materials. The land was as uncharted as the sea and most of it was covered in fetid jungle or giant cutting grass. There were few flats, separated by razor backed mountains and no connecting roads. The whole country was water logged and toxic and crocodiles waited for unwary diggers in the swollen rivers. In the early days, almost everything had to be carried in by porter and casualties out by the same method. It was a hard place to fight in.
1943 was the year in which many solutions were found. Sydney ferry boats were conscripted into the navy. The stock of available ships improved, maps were made while air lifting of men and material became common place. Experience led to better techniques for survival and supply.
Experience also led to better ways to beat the Japanese. The description of combined arms fight on the Huon Peninsula in the last few chapters of the book gives clear evidence as to why Australians have come to be considered amongst the best jungle fighters in the world. The Australians had continuously adapted to the conditions. In that campaign the 5th and 9th Australian Divisions travelled in parallel to the 20th Japanese Division north west along the coast blasting them with artillery fire as they went. The guns were located on the shoreline and constantly moved up by landing craft or barge to track the withdrawing Japanese. Matilda tanks had been outclassed in the Middle East but were near perfect in these conditions and they made short work of any rear guard defences as they travelled on roads carved out of the jungle by engineers. Along the way the ground forces were supported by RAN, RAAF and their US equivalents. At all levels, the Japanese were outclassed and were largely wiped out. A prize was capturing a steel chest of secret Japanese cipher codes: the possession of which enabled the Allies to eavesdrop on almost every Japanese communication to wars’ end.
The Huon campaign culminated in the capture of Madang in April 1944. It also marked the end of combined US-Australian operations because MacArthur now had sufficient US force under him to finally go it alone. The Australians were left to fight their own battles with some US logistics support.
The campaigns of 1943 had been the largest military operations carried out by Australian forces. They were considerably larger than those carried out in the closing months of World War I. They were carried out with deadly efficiency. From March that year, 1,200 Australians were killed on battlefields compared to 35,000 Japanese – a spectacular ratio of 29 Japanese fatalities for each Australian.
The successes in New Guinea, taken with the relatively low fatality rate, are a testament to the rapidity of Australian military adaptability: an unusual phenomenon for military organisations. The only slight issue with this book is that while it gives many excellent examples of what happened on the ground and the high level machinations of commanders, it doesn’t go far enough in exploring the management and learning systems used by the Australians to become such efficient and effective fighters in his new and hostile environment. Certainly credit belongs to all levels and services from the diggers, through NCOs to divisional commanders and beyond. Right at the top was Blamey whose largely hidden hand conducted the whole affair.
Unlike the iconic battle of Kokoda Trail, the campaigns of 1943 are largely forgotten. This is not because they weren’t significant, they were, but because they were so well run. With little of the tragi-heroic to hold popular attention it has largely fallen from memory. This book is a well balanced reminder of the time when Australian military forces truly punched above their weight.
Cambridge University Press. 2014; ISBN 978-1-107-03799-1; Hard cover: $59.95; Kindle edition available.
‘Australia 1943 – The Liberation of New Guinea’ follows ‘Australia 1942 – In the Shadow of War”; both being edited by Peter J Dean. The 1942 battles with the Japanese in the South West Pacific, particularly those along the Kokoda Track are well known to Australian readers, but the subsequent fighting in New Guinea is less familiar.
By early 1943 the direct threat to Australia had passed and the Allies now had to isolate and neutralize the major Japanese headquarters and base at Rabaul in New Britain. This was necessary for General MacArthur to continue the advance towards the Philippines, and involved eliminating Japanese held areas on the north coast of New Guinea and preventing their reinforcement.
The liberation of New Guinea required the greatest concentration of Australian armed force during World War II: five army divisions, and a large part of the RAN and the RAAF. Peter Dean has written the introduction and a chapter on ‘MacArthur’s War: Strategy and Plans for the 1943 Offensives’. Eminent historians have written ten other chapters on strategy, US Operations, Japanese Strategy, the RAAF and RAN operations and the Australian role in ‘Cartwheel’, which was MacArthur’s code word for operations by New Guinea Force to successively capture Lae, Salamaua, Finschhafen and Madang. Some of the most dramatic events of the campaign, such as the 2/16th Battalions capture of Shaggy Ridge, the airborne assault on Nadzab and the total destruction of a Japanese troop convoy by RAAF and US aircraft in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea are described in highly readable detail and with maps and photographs.
Many military books have been spoiled by too few or inadequate maps, but this is not the case here as the maps and charts are excellent. There are also chapter endnotes and useful organization charts and a chronology of major events in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) and in the South Pacific Area (SPA).
All aspects of the fighting are covered, including logistics, amphibious and airborne operations and the difficulties faced by Prime Minister Curtin in dealing with General MacArthur, Supreme Commander SWPA and General Blamey, Commander Allied Land Forces and Commander New Guinea Force: both of whom had direct access to the prime minister. US ground forces in the SWPA were deliberately organized as a separate task force under Lieutenant General Krueger to remove US troops from General Blamey’s command.
The capture of Madang and Alexishafen in April 1944 marked the end of the coalition partnership between Australian and United States ground forces, as General MacArthur was determined that the liberation of the Philippines would be by United States forces alone, and by early 1944 Australia was effectively left to reduce the remaining Japanese forces in Western New Guinea and Borneo.
Reviewed for RUSI by Roger Buxton, June 2016
Contact Brent D Taylor about this article.