Down the Buin Road

Private John Davies, with a Bren light machine-gun, during an attack by the 24th Battalion against the Japanese at the Hatai Junction on Buin Road, Southern Bougainville, 14 April 1945. 091023

The Bougainville campaign was one of the largest fought by Australian forces in the Second World War. More than 30,000 Australians served on the island, and over 500 were killed in a slow, slogging campaign.

By 1945, the Australian army had been marginalised from the key battles that would defeat Japan, relegated instead to “mopping up” operations in Australia’s Mandated Territory of New Guinea and Bougainville, and on Borneo (see Wartime Issue 73). The necessity for conducting aggressive campaigns was debated at the time in the Australian Parliament and press. Although controversial, offensive action on Bougainville was justifiable. It fulfilled the Australian government’s long-stated policies of maintaining an active military effort and employing Australian forces in Australian territory. The campaign was conceived when the war was expected to continue until at least 1946. Crucially, the Australians also mistakenly believed they outnumbered the Japanese of the Seventeenth Army, estimated by the Allies as numbering up to 13,400. In fact some 40,000 Japanese army and navy personnel occupied Bougainville and the surrounding islands. Tens of thousands of Japanese died on Bougainville in military operations, but mainly from sickness, disease and starvation.

The people of Bougainville suffered terribly with the coming of war to the Solomon Islands. From Bougainville’s pre-war population of 52,000 people, it is thought that up to a quarter died either during or because of the war.

In late 1944 Lieutenant General Stanley Savige’s II Australian Corps (the 3rd Division, and the 11th and 23rd Brigades) relieved the American garrison at Torokina, on Bougainville’s west coast. New Zealand and Australian air force squadrons supported the ground campaign. Savige divided Bougainville into three areas radiating from Torokina: the Central, Northern and Southern Sectors. In the Central Sector, the Australians followed the Numa Numa trail across the island’s mountainous spine to the east coast. In the Northern Sector, the Australians followed the north-west coast towards Buka. The advance went well until a small force made a disastrous amphibious landing at Porton Plantation in June 1945. It was the only Australian defeat of the campaign (see Wartime Issue 16). The main fight, however, was in the Southern Sector, where the 3rd Division (the 7th, 15th and 29th Brigades) advanced towards Buin, the major Japanese base on the island. In March–April 1945, the Japanese counter-attacked but were defeated with heavy losses on the bank of the Puriata River in the battle of Slater’s Knoll. The Australians continued the advance against stubborn and skilful Japanese resistance until virtually the end of the war in August.

Soldiers from the 24th ride a Matilda tank from the 2/4th Armoured Regiment’s B Squadron, on the Buin Road, 22 May 1945. Sergeant Jack Knight, far left, was awarded a British Empire Medal for clearing Japanese mines and booby traps. 092463

Fifteen Australian infantry battalions served on Bougainville along with elements of the Papuan and the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalions. The experiences of 24th Battalion (AIF) in jungle warfare were shared by many Australians during the campaign.

The 24th Battalion was part of a three-month operation of the 15th Brigade (comprising the 24th, 57th/60th and 58th/59th Battalions) in mid-1945 to destroy the Japanese forces between the Puriata and Mivo Rivers in the Southern Sector. The battalion and the brigade were now participating in their second campaign, having previously seen extensive service in New Guinea in 1943–44. Unlike those units that fought in Papua during the dire fighting in 1942, the Australians who fought in the latter Pacific campaigns were better trained, equipped, and prepared for jungle operations. The 24th Battalion also had a nucleus of experienced soldiers who provided sub-units with a hard core of familiar and seasoned leaders. Sergeant John “Joel” Langtry, for example, was one of several sergeants commissioned in the field. He would be awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for courage and leadership during the campaign. (In 1966, as a lieutenant colonel, Langtry raised the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and commanded it in Malaysia during the battalion’s first deployment.)   

The Australians on Bougainville were under no illusions as to the difficulty of their task. Brigadier Heathcote “Tack” Hammer told his 15th Brigade that the coming campaign would last for several months:

The Jap has still the will to fight but has little to back up that will … We have artillery, tanks, air force, flamethrowers to support a fine brigade, but it is the infantry, with their own weapons, who must destroy the Japs in the KILL.

Relieving the 7th Brigade in April 1945, Hammer’s 15th Brigade pushed towards Buin along the Buin and Commando Roads. Patrolling was core to the Australian operations. At times, up to 70 per cent of personnel from the 24th Battalion’s rifle companies were on patrol. Patrols could be out for three or four days and covered long distances. This vigorous patrolling was conducted as part of the Australians’ offensive policy to gain information and deny the Japanese the use of the ground.

Tactical reconnaissance by aircraft could photograph the general picture of the country, but aerial photographs did not penetrate the jungle canopy – while maps, if accurate, only provided outlines of the terrain. Foot patrols, however, gathered topographic and track information, intelligence on the enemy’s dispositions, and contributed to a defensive screen to warn against any large Japanese troop movements. Patrols recorded the type and density of the vegetation astride tracks, as well as signs of traffic along paths, and if these had been previously travelled and in what numbers. Recording details about creeks and waterways was important too. Key information included the height and width of river banks; creek depths and the surface of river beds; and whether a creek could be forded by a tank or jeep, with or without the assistance of engineers. Distances were measured by counting paces between known points. In addition to reconnaissance patrols, larger “fighting patrols” would be employed to assault known Japanese positions, while “standing patrols” would wait in ambush.

Patrols located Japanese positions to be targeted by Australian mortar and artillery fire. The ability, usually provided by artillery Forward Observation Officers, to call for artillery fire comforted the infantry and at times forced the Japanese to abandon entrenchments. Communications on patrol was provided by wireless sets or laying signal cable (and carrier pigeons on rare occasions).

Private Ken Coulson wrote about patrolling in a letter home to Australia in mid-April. He described how armed with his rifle “Betty” and grenades, his patrol:

ran slap bang into a bunch of the yellow coves [the Japanese]. We opened up & so did they. Boy the whizz bangs were sure flying. We did three of them over but they out-numbered us heavily, so had to scram.

In this case, the enemy numbered about 30 Japanese armed with a light machine-gun and grenades. The Australian patrol reported five Japanese killed and one probable. Coulson, though, at 19 was mortally wounded in another action a few days later. Most of the 24th Battalion’s casualties were suffered on patrols.   

Patrolling was slow work. Because of the terrain and the danger, the maximum rate of advance was six minutes to cover 100 yards (about 90 metres). Patrolling was both physically and mentally exhausting. Contacts were frequently very close, only metres apart. Pre-existing tracks and clearings were considered “death traps” as the Japanese often prepared pillboxes with firing lanes for their machine-guns, and locations were pre-ranged for their artillery. They similarly set up ambushes to cover approaches to log crossings over creeks and other natural obstacles. Although it was difficult and time consuming, when possible the battalion advocated “scrub bashing” – moving through the jungle rather than along tracks. “Leading and second scouts are suicide jobs,” a 24th Battalion report noted. The forward scout’s role was a “nerve wrecking job”. Rather than the patrol moving in a column, the battalion employed the technique of patrolling with three or four men in an extended line. This approach covered a wider front (“four pairs of eyes are better than one”) and allowed more fire to be brought to bear during a contact.

Corporal Robert Maas during the 24th’s attack on the Hatai Junction-Buin Road area, Bougainville, 14 April 1945. 091024

During a patrol in May, Queenslander Private John Lyne recalled moving through “a bit of a clearing, long grass but no trees … And as I came across, I could see where somebody walked … So I pulled up, pulled them all up.” Lyne paused the patrol but this did not stop the Japanese from opening fire, in an ambush : “the sergeant got hit with a bullet went through his neck … and out his back and he later died. And another one of the chaps, a rifleman, he got a burst of machine gun across his chest or something and killed him.” Lyne was shot twice through his left forearm: “I never thought so much blood could come out of you in such a fast pace.”   

Patrols with special or specific objectives were first briefed by the battalion’s Intelligence Officer (IO) with, when possible, the use of aerial photographs. When patrols returned, patrol commanders submitted written reports and were interviewed by the battalion’s Commanding Officer and the IO. For less significant patrols, soldiers from the intelligence section briefed and interrogated the patrols. The battalion instilled an aggressive approach. As the adjutant instructed:

Do not return to HQ and say ‘I did not complete my task because we saw 5 nips’. Destroy the Nips or use tactics and outmanoeuvre. The jungle is your friend the same as the enemy’s. Patrols returning for reasons outlined … will be immediately sent out again to attain their object.

Each week the 24th Battalion’s companies pushed forward in bounds of about a kilometre. The battalion moved on a two- or three-company front with the fourth company in reserve, usually labouring to develop infrastructure and communications. In addition to the extensive patrolling program, the infantrymen operated closely with engineers, Matilda tank crews, artillerymen operating 25-pounder guns, and air support. Behind the front line, back-breaking work was conducted by engineers and infantrymen to develop and improve tracks and roads. They cleared “dropping zones” for the air dropping of ammunition, rations, tobacco and mail; and bridged rivers and streams to ensure the logistics and lines of communication. Ever present too were the Bougainvilleans who worked as scouts, guides and labourers in support of the Australians.

Occupying and developing new defensive positions was accompanied by a frenzy of simultaneous digging, cutting, and carrying. On taking a new position, soldiers and Bougainvilleans immediately began to dig weapon pits and sleeping bays, and to lay wire entanglements along the perimeter. Offices for the battalion headquarters, the signals office and equipment, as well as for stores and ammunition, were also dug underground. Tents erected within the perimeter were kept low to blend with the scrub. Signallers, meanwhile, laid signal lines into the battalion headquarters and to each company. Reconnaissance patrols were sent out to the front and flanks, and forward listening posts were established.

Unit positions and patrol bases became fortresses. The defences were continually improved. Medium and light machine-guns were sited for perimeter defence and mortar pits were prepared. Weapon pits and sleeping bays were connected by crawl trenches, and timber was laid to provide overhead cover against enemy artillery and mortar fire. Wire entanglements were strengthened and rattles, often made from 2-pounder cartridge shells with fuses as a bell tongue, were attached to the wire to warn against Japanese infiltrating the wire. Undergrowth was similarly cleared away from the wired perimeter, so that assaulting Japanese soldiers would have to rush or crawl across semi-open ground with little cover – thus becoming exposed targets for the entrenched Australians.  

Such precautions were necessary. Although beaten back with heavy casualties, the Japanese assaulted the 24th Battalion’s positons several times during the campaign in what were often described as “fanatical” attacks. On 22 June, for instance, up to 100 Japanese moved on C Company’s position in a fight that lasted for two hours. The Japanese made a series of attacks against the dug-in Australians, many of them cooks and clerks, as the company’s riflemen were mainly out on patrol. The Japanese “crawled forward to within 15 yards of us, up a rise; and their Woodpecker [heavy machine-gun], knee mortar, and rifle fire were accurate,” recalled Corporal James Keys, “to say nothing of their grenades.” The soldier from Melbourne came within millimetres of becoming a casualty: a bullet ripped through his shirt as he adjusted a jammed Bren light machine-gun. One Japanese soldier reached a forward pit where he was clubbed to death by the company’s cooks. The Australians had almost expended their ammunition before the Japanese finally withdrew, leaving behind 18 dead.

Privates Selwyn Rowsell, T Elmore and P Thompson rom the 24th’s C Company prepare their weapon pits on Egan’s Ridge, Bougainville, 22 May 1945. 092472

Another Japanese tactic was to infiltrate the Australian front to harass their lines of communications. Often moving at night, the Japanese laid artillery shells and mortar bombs as improvised mines beneath corduroy roads, and set booby-traps on tracks. They attacked vehicles carrying supplies, raided Australian positions, and ambushed Australian patrols. The Japanese changed and varied their tactics too, using smoke canisters as a ruse, for example, to confuse Australian or New Zealand aircraft spotting targets for the artillery. The Japanese deployed field guns and anti-aircraft guns in camouflaged entrenchments to engage the Australian tanks. Indeed, the Japanese artillery was active throughout the campaign, shelling Australian positions and any won ground. In 2003 Private Harold “Snake Eyes” White, a machine-gunner, could still vividly recalled Japanese artillery fire:

Every night when we were down Buin Road they would shell us and you would hear the shell go off, and then you would hear it come and then you would calculate whether it is going to miss you or not as you're getting down in your foxhole.  

The menace of a Japanese attack or raid was ever present. Then a 23-year-old corporal attached to the battalion’s regimental aid post, Arthur Davis remembered feeling as though the Japanese “were all around us”, especially at night. He was once shot at by a sniper just as he took off his shirt. “I can still hear the whoosh whoosh just as it went past my nose through my shirt,” he recalled some 60 years later.

The conditions were physically exhausting. In the damp jungle environment the men were always wet from rain, river and creek crossings, muddy tracks and perspiration. Uniforms would rot and boots would disintegrate. Equipment and stores become mouldy. Much had been done to combat malaria and other tropical diseases, but skin irritations and infections still occurred.

Officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) had to be mindful of their soldiers’ health and welfare. As there were so few men, responsibility for leading and conducting patrols fell upon the same junior officers, NCOs and soldiers time and again. There was no relief from stress and strain. Earlier in the campaign, morale almost collapsed in two battalions from the 7th Brigade, with soldiers refusing to patrol and men having mental breakdowns. These incidents were partly attributed to physical and mental exhaustion. New administrative policies were introduced to provide some respite to the front line, such as establishing rest areas closer to the front. Other techniques included enforcing discipline and hygiene, and ensuring soldiers received mail, tobacco, a warm meal, and water for bathing and washing clothes. Religious services and sport also contributed to maintaining morale. Corporal Davis thought the campaign “nerve wrecking” but “being busy kept us from our fears.” He also found solace in his religious faith. Private Lyne recalled instances of a few soldiers shooting themselves in the foot or hand “to get out of it”. Specific figures for what would be described as “psychiatric casualties” suffered by Australian forces on Bougainville were not systematically recorded. The 24th Battalion’s adjutant noted frankly:

It is not possible to weed out neurotic personnel and those who are NOT suited for operations on account of either temperament or just plain fear. A very small sprinkling of these can quickly spread the disease and it should be watched very closely and stamped out immediately.

In July, the 29th Brigade began to relieve the 15th Brigade, including the 24th Battalion, in the forward areas along the Buin Road and on the Mivo River. The war came to a sudden end soon afterwards.

The 24th Battalion fought several bitter battles and numerous vicious patrol clashes, and contributed to advancing the Australian front. Between 13 April and 7 July the battalion conducted 412 specially ordered patrols. Each patrol travelled on average just over five kilometres, and the aggregate distance covered was 2,204 kilometres. The battalion suffered 183 battles casualties, including 38 deaths. These casualties represented 26.9 per cent of the unit’s strength. In the same period the 24th Battalion counted 317 Japanese killed and captured six prisoners.

Through training, planning, skilful coordination of supporting arms, and hard-fought experiences, by 1945 Australian soldiers had proved themselves masters of jungle warfare.

For more stories on the Second World War, purchase a copy of Wartime issue 85 here.