Friday 12 July, 2019
‘The jungle stamps an indelible imprint on those who fight in it.
But guts, endurance, self-sacrifice and initiative, all stretched to
breaking point many a time, have left their imprint, too, so that a
less war-weary age could say, ‘These men have the look of
great fighting men…’
Jungle Trail, 1943
Kokoda has been described as the defining battle for Australia in the Second World War. Like Tobruk, Kokoda needs no ‘battle’ prefix. Simply mentioning ‘Kokoda’ conjures images of wounded and bedraggled soldiers being assisted by indigenous Papua New Guineans, known as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, in a campaign to halt the Japanese advance in the Pacific that ultimately inflicted the first defeat on the rampaging Japanese military machine, undefeated to that point in the war. That the Kokoda campaign was predominantly fought by under-trained, under-manned and ill-equipped militia units adds to the aura surrounding what was one of the Australian military’s finest hours in the Second World War.
In mid-November 1941, General Thomas Blamey, Commander of the Australian Imperial Force, returned to Australia from the Middle East where most of Australia’s fighting force was deployed. Blamey was surprised at how detached Australian society seemed to be from the war effort, going about its day to day business while troops were on the front lines in the Middle East and Europe fighting to preserve the nation’s freedoms (sound familiar?). In a radio address to the Australian people, Blamey tried to raise the spectre of war that was, from his perspective, a lot closer to our shores than was being acknowledged, saying: ‘You are like – here in this country – a lot of gazelles grazing in a dell on the edge of the jungle, while the beasts of prey are working up towards you, apparently unseen, unnoticed. And it is the law of the jungle that they spring upon you, merciless…’
The Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula in the closing months of 1941 had caused Australia’s High Command to consider how best to deter it from occupying the islands to Australia’s north. At the time, the territories of New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland were administered by the Australian Government. Small forces were deployed essentially as reconnaissance and reporting units with militia units deployed in early January 1942.
It should be remembered that Australia’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars was in the form of expeditionary forces, raised separately from the militia that was trained and designed for defence at home, not for fighting wars ‘over there’. 250,000 Australians served in the militia during the Second World War. Another 200,000 trained in the militia before transferring to the 2nd Australian Imperial Force.
The campaign began with the deployment of the 39th and 53rd Battalions from Sydney to Port Moresby arriving on 3 January 1942 aboard the Aquitania. Historian Peter Brune, wrote that ‘…in the long, proud history of Australia at arms, there can be no more tragic and damning story than that of the raising, deployment, equipment and training of the 53rd Battalion’. Raised in November 1941, this was a battalion in name only. The 39th, while assessed as somewhat more cohesive, was not much better.
But the campaign did not begin well with the 53rd Battalion’s soldiers, some allegedly dragged from local pubs in Sydney following the quick decision taken to send troops to New Guinea, not being told where they were headed until they were clear of Sydney Heads (and being none too happy about it when they found out), and the Aquitania all but running aground on its arrival in Port Moresby and soldiers having to be offloaded so it could be refloated.
The 39th Battalion disembarked in the dark, before marching for hours and halting to get some rest by the side of the road. As militia, they knew little of life in the military and simply assumed this was life in the Army. No barrack rooms or cooked meals.
The next day, 4 January 1942, in a sign of things to come, 22 Japanese aircraft bombed Rabaul’s airfield, 450 km north east of Port Moresby – a clear statement of Japanese intent and the first time Japanese bombs fell on what was then Australian soil.
Knowledge of New Guinea was limited to say the least. There were effectively no maps, certainly none that would show the necessary detail a commander would expect to allow him to fight. Nonetheless, having developed a rudimentary defensive line around Port Moresby, the 39th was deployed to secure the airfield at Kokoda to ensure resupply by air should the Japanese be foolhardy enough to attempt the 240 km trek from Buna to Moresby over the Owen Stanley Ranges – but attempt it they did and damn near succeeded.
On 23 July 1942 clashes in the village of Awala signified the beginning of the First Battle of Kokoda.
This battle was followed by the Second Battle of Kokoda, the Battle of Isurava, delaying actions between Isurava and Brigade Hill, the Battle of Brigade Hill, and actions around Ioribaiwa and finally Imita Ridge.
After nearly two months of intense jungle fighting and extraordinary privation the Japanese advanced to within 8km of the junction with the main road to Port Moresby.
Although the Japanese could see the lights of the town, victory would be denied them. Their supply line had broken down. They were so hungry and fatigued and could go no further.
Due to the condition of their troops and the defeat at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the Japanese Headquarters decided they could not continue to support two campaigns and ordered their Army to “advance to the rear”.
Victory on the Kokoda Track ensured that bases in northern Australia, vital in the up-coming counter-offensive against the Japanese, could not be seriously threatened by air attack. In many ways the victory at Kokoda was our greatest victory in World War II.
The Kokoda Track fighting was some of the most desperate and vicious encountered by Australian troops in the entire Second World War.
Our troops fought with extraordinary courage, determination, fearlessness, bravery, initiative, loyalty and mateship in unimaginable conditions.
Approximately 625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda Trail and over 1,600 wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4,000.