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The Bougainville Offensive

Friday 13 December, 2019

Australia’s involvement in the Bougainville offensive from November 1944 to August 1945 is often overlooked in World War Two history and has even been described as an unnecessary and costly operation that was an unjustifiable use of Australia’s military resources.  But this gruelling battle has proven to have played an important role in Australia’s Second World War victory. 

Bougainville is the largest island in the chain of islands known as the Solomon Islands.  The island is 190 kilometres in length and 60 kilometres wide with a mountain chain forming its backbone. 

Prior to 1942, the island was an Australian Mandated Territory.  The Japanese occupied Bougainville in March 1942 and had established a series of bases and airfields as defensive outposts for the large and heavily-defended Japanese naval base at Rabaul.  The most significant base was located at Buin, on the southernmost tip of the island.  It was occupied by approximately 65,000 Japanese at this time. 

During 1943, it was determined by Allied planners that their key strategy in the region would be reduction of the base at Rabaul. In order to achieve this, the Allies would require airfields within range of Rabaul and it was decided to secure the western region of Bougainville.  The first Allied landings occurred at Cape Torokina by elements of the United States Marine Corps in November 1943.  After months of heavy fighting, the US forces successfully defeated the Japanese leading to their withdraw in March 1944.  A period of quiet followed as the US forces limited themselves to patrolling and establishing outposts, rather than large-scale operations.

In late 1944, as part of the build-up of US forces for an offensive in the Philippines, Allied planners decided to free up US forces in the region by having Australian forces replace them in Bougainville, the Aitape–Wewak area of New Guinea and on New Britain.  Advanced Australian elements began arriving on Bougainville in September and by December 1944 four brigades from the Australian II Corps took over responsibility for Bougainville from the divisions of United States troops that had been stationed there previously.

Doyabie Area, Bougainville. 1944-11-23. Troops of the 9th Infantry Battalion, 7th Australian Infantry Brigade, crossing the Laruma River near the end of the Numa Numa Trail. They were moving forward to take over positions occupied by the 2nd Battalion, 132nd Infantry Regiment, United States Army. Identified personnel are, QX61623 Private A.J. Jones, second from the left and behind him is QX53032 Private J.W. Allnut.

The first conflict that the Australian troops faced in Bougainville was the battle for the capture of Artillery Hill, a Japanese position along the Numa Numa trail in central Bougainville.  The landmark was a high feature that obstructed the Australian advance towards Pearl Ridge and was an important objective in the Bougainville campaign.  The hill was stormed by C Company, 9th Battalion on 18 December 1944.  The enemy was present in considerable strength and one of the great difficulties of the attack was that the only approach was along a narrow spur on either side of which the ridge fell away for two thousand feet. Thus the only way to reach the start of the position was by single file along the 6-foot spur. A hail of grenades rained down on the attackers as they clambered to the summit but, after intense, bitter fighting, the position was won.

Tsimba area, Bougainville. 27 February 1945. A cross is hewn from rough forest timber to be conveyed by an Australian infantrymen to a forward position to mark the burial place of an Australian killed in action. The soldier has been identified as W22967 Private James Oliver, 31/51st Battalion.

As the final year of the Second World War commenced, the Australians continued their slow and gruelling effort to take back Bougainville from the Japanese.  Over the nine months that followed, the Australian troops made tedious advances and continued to patrol the island.   “The war the infantry knew was one of patrolling along stinking, humid jungle tracks and putrid swamps in an intimate, personal war of section patrols and the occasional company-size attack,” writes Australian War Memorial historian Dr Karl James. “The strain of constant clashes with the Japanese and harassing artillery fire eroded the men’s morale.”

Throughout the campaign the Australians suffered just one defeat at the Porton Plantation when an amphibious landing on the night of 8-9 June 1945 went awry.  The landing was in the wrong place, an essential supply barge was grounded on the rough coral that surrounded the beach, and the Japanese were able to get in reinforcements that gave them control over the area.  This left dozens of Australian troops stranded on the beach as even the rescue boats became stuck on the reefs.  When daylight broke 27 men had been killed or were missing and 69 were wounded.

On 15 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered and the campaign in Bougainville came to an end.  The Australian’s could claim to have controlled about two-thirds of the island by this time and the number of Japanese occupying the island had reduced from about 65,000 when the US forces had arrived to now be around 23,800 at surrender.

During the offensive against the Japanese on Bougainville, Australian’s experienced more than 516 fatalities and a further 1572 men were wounded.  The Japanese lost approximately 18,000 men, leaving only approximately 23,000 to surrender in August 1945.

A perceptive Australian officer and future Chief of General Staff, Ragnar Garrett, later said that the 3rd Australian Division was the best division he had ever known – not excluding the famed 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions. 

Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians who fought on Bougainville.   

Corporal Reginald Roy Rattey of the 25th Battalion received the honour for the gallantry and bravery he displayed during a contact with Japanese troops along Buin Road, South Bougainville on 22 March, 1945.

Private Frank John Partridge of the 8th Battalion received the honour for the outstanding heroism and bravery he displayed during a mission to eliminate a Japanese outpost on 14 July, 1945.








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