High command and the Kokoda campaign

David Horner

The events of 1942 presented the Australian government and its military high command with greater challenges than at any time since Federation. For the first and only time since white settlement Australia faced the prospect of a foreign invasion. Since the outbreak of war in 1939 the government had been required to make a series of decisions about strategic deployments, such as to send forces to the Middle East, to take part in the Empire Air Training Scheme, to deploy forces to Malaya, and to approve the Greek campaign. But except for the demand to withdraw the 9th Division from Tobruk, the government had not been involved in major decisions concerning the conduct of operations.

Even during the early stages of the Pacific War the government was not directly involved in operations. It demanded that Britain send reinforcements to Singapore and then insisted that the 1st Australian Corps return to Australia. It approved the deployment of Australian troops to Port Moresby, Rabaul, Ambon and Timor, but had to watch helplessly while the Japanese overran the forces at Rabaul, Ambon and Timor and bombed Darwin. It seemed that without help from the United States, Australia could do little to prevent an invasion.

Australia's political and military leaders were fully justified in believing that the country was under a real threat of invasion. But, unknown to the Australians, Japanese Army and Navy leaders were deep in argument about whether to invade Australia. Meanwhile, on 8 March Japanese forces landed at Lae and Salamaua on the north coast of New Guinea. On 15 March the Japanese leaders finally put aside plans to invade Australia; instead they decided to capture Port Moresby and the southern Solomons, and then "to isolate Australia" by seizing Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.

The security of Australia would therefore depend on the battle for Port Moresby, for if it were captured the Japanese could strike at will at the north coast of Queensland. Furthermore, if the Japanese extended their air and naval bases to Fiji they could interdict the lines of communication between Australia and the United States, making it extremely difficult to build up Australia as the main base for a counter-offensive against the Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Perhaps, if the Japanese had succeeded in these plans, they might have later changed their minds and landed in northern Queensland. That the Japanese high command never agreed to invade Australia does not detract from the crucial importance of the battles for Port Moresby in 1942. The struggle for Port Moresby was decided in six key battles, some well known, and others less so. These six battles were:

  • the Lexington and Yorktown raids against Japanese shipping in the New Guinea area in February and March 1942
  • the battle of the Coral sea in May 1942
  • the battle of Midway in June 1942
  • the campaign on the Kokoda Trail in August and September 1942
  • the battle at Milne Bay in August and September 1942
  • the Guadalcanal campaign between August 1942 and February 1943.

It is noteworthy that the Australian high command could influence only two of these battles - Kokoda and Milne Bay - in any substantial manner.

Let me recap quickly on the first three battles. In March 1942 aircraft from the US aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown attacked Japanese shipping landing troops at Lae and Salamaua, sinking four and damaging seven vessels that were intended to support an invasion of Port Moresby. This postponed the planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby by a month.

The Japanese were also delayed by operations in the Indian Ocean and were not able to mount a major invasion force against Port Moresby until early May. Then in the battle of the Coral Sea, aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown, plus land-based aircraft from Townsville, struck at the force covering the Japanese invasion fleet. Lexington was lost and the Yorktown damaged but the invasion of Port Moresby was turned back. Japanese plans to take Port Moresby were further delayed by the battle of Midway, fought between US and Japanese carrier fleets in the central Pacific Ocean in early June. The Japanese lost four carriers to the US's one, and were forced to postpone their plans to seize New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Instead it was now even more urgent to capture Port Moresby. But with the loss of the carriers, an amphibious operation was no longer possible, and General Hyakutake in Rabaul was ordered to plan an overland drive over the Owen Stanley Ranges to Port Moresby. The scaling down of the Japanese offensive plans indicated that strategically the tide of battle was beginning to turn, but the Japanese were still capable of mounting a deadly offensive. The stage was set for three major battles in August - Kokoda, Milne Bay and Guadalcanal.

But before we discuss these battles, let us look at the high command arrangements in Australia. The Australian Labor government was headed by the Prime Minister, John Curtin, who was also Minister for Defence. He presided over a small War Cabinet of eight senior ministers that met frequently to decide matters concerning the conduct of the war. He also headed the Advisory War Council that consisted of five government ministers and five senior members of the Opposition. As there were five War Cabinet ministers in the Advisory War Council its decisions were accepted as War Cabinet decisions. The Labor government was inexperienced, having come to power the previous October. Curtin had never been a government minister and had no military experience. Indeed only one War Cabinet minister had any military experience, and generally the Labor ministers were suspicious of the military. A key figure was the Secretary to the Department of Defence, Frederick Shedden, who was also secretary of both the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council.

The chiefs of staff of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force usually attended the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council meetings to provide professional military advice. In mid 1942 the chiefs were Admiral Sir Guy Royle, General Sir Thomas Blamey and Air Vice Marshal George Jones. Blamey was actually Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces and was often represented by the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General John Northcott.

The chiefs of staff were limited in the advice that they could provide to the War Cabinet as they had little control over the operations of their forces. Operational control was in the hands of the American General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Southwest Pacific Area, whose headquarters was in Melbourne. The formation of the Southwest Pacific Area in April 1942 had transformed the strategic situation. US ships, aircraft and troops were deployed to Australia and while they were in fewer numbers than the Australian government or MacArthur hoped, they were crucial to the success of the operations later in the year. The Allied naval forces (including the Australian ships) came under an American admiral, and Admiral Royle had responsibilities for only coastal operations. Similarly, the Allied air forces came under an American, and Air Vice Marshal Jones had no operational responsibility. General Blamey was, however, commander of the Allied land forces and, subject to MacArthur's direction, was therefore responsible for land operations. As it turned out, MacArthur did not want Blamey to command US troops and tried to limit his command to Australian troops.

The key strategic decision-making body in Australia was the Prime Minister's War Conference that consisted of Curtin, MacArthur and anyone else invited by Curtin. In fact, Shedden attended all the meetings, and often met with MacArthur on Curtin's behalf. As early as 10 April Curtin advised MacArthur that "if I should not be readily available, Mr Shedden has my full confidence in regard to all questions of War Policy". Thus MacArthur became the government's principal adviser on military and strategic matters, and Blamey had only limited scope for advising the government.

MacArthur later claimed that when he arrived in Australia he discovered that the Australians had a "largely defeatist conception" of defending their country from the Brisbane Line. It was never his intention to defend Australia on the mainland of Australia: "That was the plan when I arrived, but to which I never subscribed, and which I immediately changed to a plan to defend Australia in New Guinea."

MacArthur had distorted the truth. Certainly, defensive positions were established around the capital cities, and other provincial cities such as Townsville and Newcastle, and soldiers occupying the defences around Brisbane probably believed they were holding the Brisbane Line. These were sensible precautions, but they did not represent the government's complete plan for the defence of Australia. Indeed, both MacArthur and the Australians planned to move forces to northern Australia and New Guinea just as soon as trained troops were available and could be supported and supplied adequately. But there is no evidence that after the battle of the Coral Sea MacArthur or the Australians moved quickly or decisively to defend New Guinea, and there was intelligence that despite the setback in the Coral Sea, the Japanese were still determined to take Port Moresby.

The American success at Midway had a remarkable effect on both the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, and on MacArthur in Melbourne. MacArthur wanted to seize the opportunity to mount a major assault against the Japanese base at Rabaul. But the US Navy was not willing to allow MacArthur to take full control of the offensive. Eventually, after weeks of bickering, it was agreed that the offensive would be shared. US Naval forces under Admiral Robert L. Ghormley would seize and occupy Santa Cruz and Tulagi Islands in the southern Solomon Islands. Then MacArthur's forces would capture the remainder of the Solomons and the north coast of New Guinea.

In preparation for these operations, MacArthur ordered the construction of an airfield at Milne Bay at the southeast tip of New Guinea, and moved his headquarters, known as General Headquarters, or GHQ, forward to Brisbane. Meanwhile, Ghormley was preparing for his Solomons operations. At the time of the Coral Sea battle the Japanese had landed a small force on Tulagi Island, but in June the Americans received reports that the Japanese were building an airstrip on larger Guadalcanal Island which was nearby. Ghormley was ordered to seize it, using the 1st US Marine Division. Once the Marines had landed on Guadalcanal, MacArthur planned to occupy the Buna area on the north coast of Papua, where airstrips would be prepared to support his advance towards Rabaul.

Unfortunately for MacArthur's grandiose plans, the Japanese moved first. Indeed, from the beginning the Papuan campaign was shaped by inaccurate strategic assessments by MacArthur's headquarters. Following the battle of the Coral Sea, the Australian garrison at Port Moresby was increased from one to two militia brigades, and a little later another militia brigade was sent to Milne Bay to protect the airfield being built there. But with his eye on his coming offensive MacArthur disregarded intelligence reports that indicated that the Japanese were about to strike again at Port Moresby. For example, in May MacArthur's code-breakers deciphered a Japanese message that their next operation would be over the Owen Stanley Range. This message, which one senior code-breaker called "one of the three most important to be decoded in the war", formed the basis for a GHQ Intelligence Summary on 23 May 1942, but was disregarded by MacArthur's intelligence staff. The decision to send militia rather than AIF troops to New Guinea, and the slow build up of the force in Port Moresby, seem to indicate that neither MacArthur nor Blamey had given the area the priority it deserved.

Certainly, MacArthur and Blamey reacted to the news that the Japanese were likely to land a small force at Buna by ordering the Commander of New Guinea Force at Port Moresby, Major General Basil Morris, to send troops across the Kokoda Trail to secure Buna. But Morris did not have sufficient forces to conduct a proper defence of Papua.

The 39th militia Battalion from Port Moresby had just begun to move towards Buna when the Japanese landed there on the night of 21 July. But even then MacArthur refused to take the Japanese threat seriously, believing that once the US Marines landed at Guadalcanal on 7 August the Japanese might withdraw from Buna. Blamey was not as confident as MacArthur and, after the 39th Battalion was driven out of Kokoda on 29 July by superior forces, it became obvious that reinforcements would have to be sent to New Guinea.

It was agreed that Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell and the headquarters of the 1st Australian Corps, plus the 21st Brigade of the 7th AIF Division would go to Port Moresby. The 18th Brigade of the 7th Division would join the 7th militia Brigade at Milne Bay and would form a small division, known as Milne Force, under Major General Cyril Clowes.

But the despatch of these reinforcements, which would not arrive in New Guinea until mid-August, did not mean that MacArthur or Blamey were taking the Japanese threat a seriously as they should have. As MacArthur told the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, on 2 August, he planned to "secure the crest of the Owen Stanley Range… and to provide an airfield at Milne Bay to secure the southern end of the Owen Stanley bastion". After that he could advance with amphibious forces along the north coast of Papua.

It is true that the Japanese were thrown off balance by the landing of the US Marines at Guadalcanal on 7 August. On 28 July Major General Horii, the commander of the Japanese Souths Seas Detachment in Rabaul, had been ordered to attack Port Moresby over the range. This assault was now postponed until later in August when it was to be coordinated with a landing at Milne Bay.

Nor were the Japanese content to be pushed off their new airstrip at Guadalcanal. On the night of 8/9 August their cruisers struck at the Allied naval forces protecting the US landing. In the disastrous battle of Savo Island, the Australian cruiser Canberra, and three US cruisers were sunk. Following up this victory, the Japanese landed 1,000 men on Guadalcanal to drive the Americans off. On 21 August the Japanese lost heavily in an attack on the perimeter of Henderson airfield. While the Americans held the airstrip they could control the surrounding seas by day. But at night the Japanese dominated, bringing in reinforcements for another effort to seize the vital airstrip. As General Harmon, the Commander of the US Army, Pacific, reported to General Marshall in Washington, "We have seized a strategic position. Can the Marines hold it? There is considerable room for doubt!"

In Papua, General MacArthur's Australian forces were about to face a similar challenge. The Japanese offensive began on 26 August with two simultaneous attacks - one against Isurava on the Kokoda Trail, and the other a landing by Japanese Marines at Milne Bay. It took some days before the troops at Isurava and the commanders at Port Moresby realised that the Japanese there had been reinforced for an offensive, and thus for a number of days the action at Milne Bay attracted the greatest attention. There General Clowes was fighting a difficult battle. Hampered by constant rain, endless mud and poor communications, and threatened with a landing to his rear, he was wary of committing his forces to an immediate counter-attack.

The Milne Bay landing, followed soon after by news of a Japanese victory at Isurava, caused intense anxiety at MacArthur's headquarters in the AMP building in Brisbane. On 28 August he warned Marshall in Washington that the situation might become critical unless he was provided with naval support. Then two days later, in another message to Marshall, he started to lay the blame for any possible defeat on the Australian troops: "This is the first test of Australian troops under my command", he wrote. "With good troops under first class leadership I would view the situation with confidence … but … I am not yet convinced of the efficiency of the Australian troops." Without additional naval forces, he predicted "the development within a reasonable period of time of a situation similar to those which produced the disasters that have successively overwhelmed our forces in the Pacific since the beginning of the war".

The root of the trouble was that MacArthur's strategy was at fault. He had based the defence of Port Moresby on the belief that a garrison at Milne Bay and a picket on the crest of the Owen Stanley's, in addition to air and naval forces, would be sufficient, while he prepared for his spectacular offensive bounds. But now his strategy was looking dangerously unrealistic. The Japanese had decimated the US Navy in the Solomons and were challenging the security of Milne Bay and the Range.

At GHQ in Brisbane there was a lamentable lack of understanding of the conditions in New Guinea. For example, on 13 August, a fortnight before the Isurava battle, GHQ suggested that the "pass" through the Owen Stanley Ranges could be blocked by demolitions. Rowell in Port Moresby replied that since parts of the track already had to be negotiated on hands and knees, explosives, which would have to be man-handled up the track, could hardly block it.

The lack of understanding at GHQ was revealed further after the Japanese landed at Milne Bay. MacArthur started to send peremptory messages to Port Moresby ordering the Australians rapidly to destroy the Japanese. Confident of General Clowes' ability to conduct the battle at Milne Bay, Rowell refused to pass on these messages.

Despite MacArthur's misgivings, by 6 September Clowes had defeated the Japanese at Milne Bay, but by this time it was obvious that there was an even greater threat on the Kokoda Trail, where the Australian troops were conducting a desperate withdrawal. On 6 September MacArthur again asked Marshall for more naval forces. "If New Guinea goes the result will be disastrous. This is urgent." And again he shifted the blame, adding that "the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking." The deteriorating strategic situation in New Guinea related directly to his own faulty plans. He had to find someone to blame and settled on the Australian soldiers and commanders. After his failure in the Philippines, MacArthur knew that knives were out for him in Washington; the fall of Port Moresby would not be just another military disaster, it would be the end of his military career.

In Port Moresby Rowell believed that it was Blamey's role to shield him from these pressures. But he did not appreciate that since Curtin supported MacArthur, Blamey's own position was in jeopardy. An accomplished and ruthless political general like Blamey would fight for his own survival not just for himself, but also because he believed that, for the sake of Australia, he was the best man to deal with MacArthur.

If the withdrawal on the Kokoda Trail was causing disquiet at GHQ in Brisbane, it was causing perhaps even more concern in Canberra. As early as 5 August Billy Hughes, the former prime minister, now leader of the United Australia Party and a member of the Advisory War Council, had publicly criticised Australia's military leaders for failing to "anticipate the enemy's movements". On 17 August Curtin and Shedden visited Brisbane for discussions with MacArthur, who assured the Prime Minister that the Japanese "could not attack Port Moresby with any strength of land forces over the mountain range". However in the Advisory War Council on 27 August non-government members again criticised the "defensive strategy" in New Guinea. In a secret session of parliament on 3 September Curtin appealed to members to control their criticism.

But by the time the Advisory War Council met on 9 September the troops were withdrawing over the mountains and the non-government members aggressively cross-examined the military chiefs. The Council agreed that Blamey should visit New Guinea. Blamey had already decided to go and he arrived in Port Moresby on 12 September. On his return he addressed the Advisory War Council on 17 September and said that he was confident that the troops under Rowell would hold Port Moresby. There was a heated discussion with both Hughes and a senior minister, John Beasley, attacking Blamey, while the Army Minister, Frank Forde, remained convinced that Port Moresby would fall.

Meanwhile, during the day news arrived that the fresh and experienced 25th AIF Brigade that had been rushed to New Guinea to relieve the 21st, had withdrawn to within 60 kilometres of Port Moresby. The Allied air commander Major General George Kenney, returned to Brisbane from Port Moresby and told MacArthur that Rowell had become defeatist and that Moresby would be lost "if something did not happen". Kenney had not even met Rowell when he had visited Port Moresby, but MacArthur was already deeply worried about events there. He accepted Kenney's rather than Blamey's views. On the evening of 17 September he telephoned Curtin and advised him that Blamey should go to New Guinea to take command personally "not only to energise the situation, but to save himself" and "to meet his responsibility to the Australian public".

Later Curtin confessed that, "in my ignorance (of military matters), I thought that the Commander-in-Chief should be in New Guinea", but he would have been supported by some of his colleagues. John Beasley, who was nearby, was reported to have said in the hearing of other ministers: "Moresby is going to fall. Send Blamey up there and let him fall with it!" Blamey's comment was more to the point. He was not worried about the situation in New Guinea, but as he told one of his senior staff officers, "Canberra's lost it". Later he wrote to Rowell about the "very inexperienced politicians who are inclined to panic on every possible occasion". After a background briefing by the Prime Minister, the General Manager of the Melbourne Herald wrote about Blamey: "They are not satisfied with him … His every move is watched. He was sent to New Guinea … to give him one final chance."

Uncomfortable with this order, Blamey dallied and did not arrive in Port Moresby until 23 September. By this time the Japanese offensive on the Kokoda Trail had stopped. As we know, some days later Blamey relieved Rowell of his command, but already the tide of battle had turned. On 2 October the Australians began their counter-offensive.

Meanwhile the War Cabinet had decided that two senior ministers Drakeford and Forde should visit New Guinea. Forde flew up to New Guinea with Brigadier C. E. M. ("Gaffer") Lloyd, and during the flight Forde said to Lloyd: "Gaffer, you don't think they'll get Moresby do you?" "No", said Lloyd. A bit later, "Are you really confident?" "Yes", replied Lloyd. "You don't know what would happen if the Japs got Moresby!" exclaimed Forde. "Don't I?" said Lloyd. "No", said Forde, "I'd lose my seat in Capricornia."

The Japanese failed on the Kokoda Trail for three reasons. First, the track was much more difficult than they had expected and they had made insufficient provision for supplies. Second, their advance was seriously delayed by the hard fighting of the Australians, which bought time for reinforcements to arrive and caused the Japanese to exhaust their supplies. And third, the Guadalcanal campaign caused the Japanese high command in Rabaul to divert resources to that area, and eventually to order a halt to the Owen Stanley advance.

The Allied successes on the Kokoda Trail, at Milne Bay and on Guadalcanal ensured the security of Australia. In the first two battles the Australians played the major role, while the work of the Australian coastwatchers in saving Guadalcanal was crucial. Had Milne Bay been taken by the Japanese the Allied position would have been threatened. If Port Moresby had been taken by General Horii's troops advancing over the Kokoda Trail, the whole strategic situation would have been transformed. In that sense, Kokoda was one of the most important battles fought by Australians in the Second World. But contrary to later claims by General MacArthur, it was a battle fought in reaction to a Japanese offensive. It owes nothing to strategic prescience among the high command in Australia.

On the contrary, the high command had performed poorly. Perhaps MacArthur's intelligence staff had failed to emphasise the intelligence that the Japanese planned to advance over the Kokoda Trail, but more likely, MacArthur did not want to listen to intelligence assessments that interfered with his prearranged plans. Initially, Blamey failed to send his best troops to New Guinea, and neither MacArthur nor Blamey had visited the area before the battle began. Perhaps the military leaders had made sufficient errors to cause the politicians to lose confidence in them, but Blamey was correct when, after his visit to Port Moresby on 12 September he expressed confidence in Rowell and his ability to hold Port Moresby. Neither MacArthur nor the government expressed similar confidence in Blamey. MacArthur's criticism of the Australian troops was a shameful attempt to protect his own position.

Against the suffering and heroism on the Kokoda Trail the arguments between generals and politicians might seem of little consequence. But the opposite is the case. It was errors by men like MacArthur and Blamey which led to the near disaster in New Guinea. As usual, it was the men in the front line who paid the heaviest price.

Prof. David Horner is in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. His article entitled "Kokoda commanders" appeared in Wartime 18.