Battle of Buna

Buna, a village on the coastal plain of northern Papua, was the main base for the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Trail. The first Japanese landings in the area occurred at Gona, east of Buna, on 21 July 1941 and Buna was later occupied by troops on foot. Large scale landings subsequently occurred at Buna on 21 August. The Japanese presence forstalled the Allies' own plans to develop a base at Buna. From west to east, the Buna area encompassed Buna village, Buna Government Station, and, several kilometres to the east, two airstrips - "old" and "new".

Major fighting did not occur at Buna until after the Japanese had advanced and then retreated along the Kokoda Trail. American troops of the 32nd Division initially closed on Buna in November 1942 - one infantry regiment attacked towards the village from the south, while another advanced on the airstrips from the east. A combination of inexperience and poor leadership, however, meant they made little progress against the well-sited and heavily fortified bunkers with which the Japanese defended it.

The 18th Australian Brigade, command by Brigadier George Wootten, and a squadron of tanks from the 2/6th Australian Armoured Regiment were moved up from Milne Bay in mid-December to reinforce the Americans. By this time, Buna village had been captured but the Japanese remained well-entrenched around the airfields and the government station. The 18th Brigade's first attack was launched in the airfield area by the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions on the morning of 18 December. Despite the support of the tanks, the fighting was slow and vicious, with the Japanese bunkers having to be destroyed one by one. By 23rd December this phase of the operations had achieved its objective of clearing the area between the airfields and the coast, and it was now time to tackle the core of Japanese resistance - the positions around the western end of the old strip.

The 2/10th Battalion made a series of attacks along the old strip between 24 and 29 December but few gains were made. The four tanks that initially accompanied the battalion were quickly destroyed, leaving the infantry to tackle the bunkers with only the most minimal artillery support. Brigadier Wootten's impatience to make progress meant the 2/10th was bustled into poorly planned and co-ordinated attacks and heavy casualties were the result. When more tanks began arriving on 29 December another attack was rushed through, with the same disasterous results.

Victory at Buna, only came with a pause in operations to allow proper planning, the reinforcement of the tanks, and the replacement of the tired and depleted 2/10th by the fresh 2/12th Battalion. They attacked on the morning of 1 January and, with the tanks and infantry co-operating closely, destroyed the bulk of the Japanese positions before nightfall. The destruction of isolated points of resistance continued the next day. In the meantime, American troops had also been attacking east from Buna village and secured the Buna Government Station, and effected a junction with the force moving west form the old strip on 2 January. The battle for Buna cost the Allied forces 2,870 casualties; the 18th Brigade had lost 863, including 306 killed. Close to 1,400 Japanese dead were countered, although their casualtiy toll was probably much higher when those killed or buried alive in destroyed bunkers are considered.