Storming the beaches

Australians employing a Japanese barge to transport an Australian 25-pounder gun, Oro Bay, Papua, 11 November 1942. Photo: Thomas Fischer. AWM 069261

On the morning of 1 July 1945 hundreds of warships and vessels from the United States Navy, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Netherlands Navy lay off the coast of Balikpapan, an oil refining centre on Borneo’s south-east coast. An Australian soldier described the scene: “Landing craft are in formation and swing towards the shore. The naval gunfire is gaining momentum, the noise from the guns and bombs exploding is terrific … waves of Liberators [heavy bombers] are pounding the area.”

This offensive to land the 7th Australian Infantry Division at Balikpapan was the final in a series amphibious operations conducted by the Allies to liberate areas of Dutch and British territory on Borneo. It was the largest amphibious operation conducted by Australian forces during the Second World War. Within an hour some 16,500 troops were ashore and pushing inland, along with nearly 1,000 vehicles. Ultimately more than 33,000 personnel from the 7th Division and Allied forces were landed in the amphibious assault. Balikpapan is often cited as an example of the expertise achieved by Australian forces in amphibious operations during the war. It was a remarkable development. Four years earlier, the capability of Australia or even the United States to conduct amphibious operations in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) was limited, if not non-existent.

The SWPA was a vast theatre that included Australia, Papua and New Guinea, the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Philippines, with Allied forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. The term “amphibious warfare” was generally adopted in preference to “combined operations”, the term favoured in the European theatres. In 1944, the Australian army defined “amphibious warfare” as “operations in which Navy, Army and Air Force participate together in a coordinated plan involving the transport of army assaulting forces by sea.”

US operated landing craft carrying Australian soldiers approach Balikpapan, Borneo, 1 July 1945. AWM 018812

Unlike many of the amphibious landings conducted by the US Navy and US Marine Corps in the Central Pacific, the amphibious operations conducted by MacArthur’s forces in the SWPA were frequently used to outmanoeuvre the enemy, rather than as a direct assault against the Japanese. Between 22 June 1943 and 12 July 1945, United States-led Allied forces conducted more than 60 major amphibious landings in the theatre. The RAN participated in nearly half of them.

Australian troops disembark over the side of a LCP during an exercise at the Joint Overseas Operational Training School, Nelson’s Bay, NSW, December 1942. AWM P02216.002

Japanese operations

The Japanese were the first to conduct offensive amphibious operations in the South-West Pacific. They were initially successful, seizing Rabaul on the island of New Britain, and areas such as Timor in early 1942. The Australian defenders of Port Moresby, Papua, for example, considered the greatest threat to the isolated outpost would come from the sea with a Japanese amphibious invasion against Moresby – not an overland advance from the mountains across the formidable Owen Stanley Range.

The Japanese had assembled a seaborne invasion force to assault Port Moresby but the losses they suffered in the battle of the Coral Sea in May meant this operation was not launched. Japanese plans for an amphibious invasion of Midway Island, in the Central Pacific, were similarly checked because of their defeat at the battle of Midway in June. In late August, the Japanese conducted an unsuccessful amphibious operation at Milne Bay, Papua; they landed, reinforced and, after a week-long battle, evacuated their force by sea at night. Japanese air cover was minimal. The Australian soldiers by comparison were well supported by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), particularly from the fighter-bomber squadrons. Indeed, air support proved the “decisive factor” in the Australian victory (see Wartime issue 59).

The aborted Japanese amphibious operations for Port Moresby and Midway, and their defeat at Milne Bay, demonstrate the first requirement for the successful conduct of an amphibious operation – control of the sea and air. At the outbreak of the Pacific war, the Allies could not carry out amphibious operations in the South-West Pacific. Initially there were no suitable ships, landing craft, trained army or naval personnel, training facilities or even instructors. These requirements were addressed over time, but it was a gradual process as the SWPA had to compete for Allied (principally US) resources.

During 1942 training centres were established for Australian and American forces. Approaches to conducting amphibious warfare were developed, and landing craft and ships were ordered from Britain and the United States, and built in Australia. In June the First Australian Army Combined Training School was established at Toorbul Point, Queensland, later becoming the Amphibious Training Centre. The Joint Overseas Operational Training School (JOOTS) was also established at Port Stephens, New South Wales. It was staffed by American and Australian officers, and from August conducted courses to train soldiers in amphibious assaults.  In September HMAS Assault was commissioned at Nelson Bay, NSW, for training landing craft and boat crews. This naval establishment would become home for a time to the slowly growing Allied amphibious fleet –  including the Australian Landing Ships, Infantry (LSIs), and Australian constructed Landing Crafts, Assault (LCAs) –  as well as other landing ships and landing craft of various types from the United States. In March 1943 both the Amphibious Training Centre and JOOTS came under the control of the Seventh Amphibious Force. JOOTS essentially merged with the Amphibious Training Centre later that year, while Assault operated until July 1944.

Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey (left) with General Douglas MacArthur (centre), Morotai island, 15 September 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-257967

Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey (left) with General Douglas MacArthur (centre), Morotai island, 15 September 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-257967

Barbey’s fleet

Another key contributor to the development of amphibious operations was the appointment in January 1943 of Rear Admiral Daniel E. “Uncle Dan” Barbey to what became the Seventh Amphibious Force. He was the US Navy’s leading expert on amphibious warfare. Barbey was concerned with development of amphibious materials, doctrine, and training. General MacArthur once described Barbey as “just about the Number One amphibious commander in the world”. At their first meeting, in a one-sided conversation, MacArthur told Barbey of his plans for future operations in New Guinea and against Rabaul – noting how, in the general’s opinion, the reconquest of the Philippines had to have priority over all other objectives. Your job,” MacArthur said to Barbey, “is to develop an amphibious force that can carry my troops in those campaigns.”

The amphibious landings of the 9th Australian Division in New Guinea near Lae in September 1943 – and the subsequent predawn landing at “Scarlet Beach”, Finschhafen, later that month – were the first opposed landings conducted by Barbey’s amphibious force. (They were also the first Australian amphibious operation since the landing on Gallipoli in 1915.) Conducted without air cover or prolonged naval bombardment, both Lae and Finschhafen were successful, though not without mishap, and proved to be valuable lessons.

US troops lay metal strips along the beach during the unloading of vehicles and stores from US landing ships, Lae, New Guinea, September 1943. AWM 068593

Barbey’s fleet relied upon Landing Ships, Tanks (LSTs), Landing Craft, Infantry (LCIs), and Landing Craft, Tanks (LCTs). Shore-based air support was not always guaranteed and naval gunfire support was limited to destroyers. Barbey consequently chose lightly defended beaches for assault, relying on surprise. Often the same ships had to be used both for the assault and to bring in reinforcements, so speed was critical. Barbey insisted upon thorough training, simple language in operational orders, landing where the Japanese were not, continuous air and sea coverage, and the rapid unloading of only those items of equipment and stores that were essentials.

These regions presented their own unique geographic challenges. There were very few developed harbours in New Guinea and many of the waterways were poorly charted, or not at all. Beaches were narrow, often with coral shelves extending from the beach, and there was an abundance of shoals and reefs. Thick jungle approached the water’s edge. This, with the soft or swampy ground inland, complicated beach clearances and the dispersal of vehicles and stores. The jungle too provided difficulties in identifying Japanese defences and fortifications. Interpreting aerial photographs proved an effective method to determine the nature of beaches and approaches, and of neighbouring terrain.  

By 1944, the Allies had far greater material and power in the south-west Pacific, and were dominating the sea and air. Hundreds of Allied ships participated in the landings in the Philippines and Borneo in 1944–45. Amphibious operations were complex undertakings. From the sequencing of the assault landing craft onto an invasion beach, to the loading and trimming of an LST to prevent it from being stranded on a falling tide or mud flat, every aspect had to be thought out and organised. Minesweeping and hydrographic work needed to plot, chart and mark navigational features; and the assault approach channels needed to be sounded and fitted with buoys. Beach reconnaissance was also needed to determine the types and gradients of beaches. The interception and decryption of Japanese codes and communications (ULTRA intelligence), meant MacArthur could conduct his series of bypassing leaps secure in his knowledge of Japanese dispositions and strengths.

Naval and air bombardment proved effective in destroying and suppressing Japanese coastal guns and other fortifications. At Balikpapan, for instance, where the Japanese defences were known to be strong, the invasion area and surrounds were pounded by a prolonged aerial and naval bombardment that began weeks prior to the landing by the 7th Australian Division on 1 July 1945. It was reported later that the navy had “hurled” an average of one shell or rocket against every 230 square yards of actual landing beach. In the 20 days before the assault, the Balikpapan-Manggar area received 3,000 tons of bombs, more than 7,000 rockets and over 38,000 shells.

The Australian contribution

The Australian LSIs were ever-present. These ships carried troops and boats, and were essential for ship-to-shore operations. Originally built and operated as civilian passenger liners, HMAS Manoora, Westralia and Kanimbla were commissioned into the RAN as Armed Merchant Cruisers. In late 1942 and into 1943 the three ships were converted to landing ships. As an officer from Kanimbla noted, the merchant cruiser’s guns were removed and replaced with landing craft and scrambling nets; wooden panelling was replaced with galvanised iron sheeting; and all available space was converted for carrying troops and stores. Once fitted with American-pattern messing with standee bunks installed, Manoora, for example, could carry some 1,250 soldiers and between 20 and 22 Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) and two or three Landing Craft, Mechanised (LCM). Manoora took part in more than half-a-dozen amphibious operations, usually carrying US forces, including the landing at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines on 9 January 1945. A RAN officer who disembarked from Manoora to participate in the landing later gave an evocative description of the assault:

“All boats were lowered and combat troops embarked without mishap, and as the boats moved inshore practically the entire countryside in the vicinity of the beach was shrouded in smoke from the exploding shells of the naval bombardment. My chief impression as we approached the beach was the seemingly ever-increasing thunder of the rocket bombardment. All waves of landing craft approached the beach with admirable station-keeping.”  

An assault landing craft being swung aboard HMAS Westralia, Morotai, 14 April 1945. AWM 090729

The RAN Beach Commandos were another contribution to amphibious operations (see Wartime issue 51). These men were specialists who were trained in assault techniques, and were responsible for controlling the waves of landing craft and ordering the confused landing area into an organised beachhead. Established along the same lines as Royal Navy Beach Commandos, the RAN Beach Commando units were formed in 1944 to work with the Australian army’s two beach groups. Lettered “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, a RAN beach commando unit consisted of 120 officers and ratings and was about the equivalent of three US Navy beach parties. Units included beachmasters, beach parties, a repair and recovery section, and a naval beach signals section. In addition to seamanship skills and boat and landing craft handling, these sailors also received infantry training that included patrolling, field engineering and demolitions; and they were instructed in driving different kinds of vehicles, such as jeeps, graders, and even amphibious DUKWs.

These beach commando units were first deployed during the Australian operations in Borneo. At Balikpapan, advance parties from RAN Commandos B and D came ashore with the second wave, with a beach party at each of the three landing beaches, and immediately set to work. When the principal beachmaster came ashore 45 minutes after “H” hour, he noted that the beachmasters had “organised their beaches well” – the shore had been surveyed, exits marked, and the area was kept “comparatively clear” of stores and equipment.

The Australian army also developed its water transport capability. In September 1942, the Directorate of Water Transport (Small Craft) was raised, for which the Royal Australian Engineers were responsible. The army’s water transport was designed to resupply forward areas, as well as the army’s remote garrisons on islands that were only accessible by sea. The water transport ferried troops, transported equipment and brought supplies. They covered a vast territory from the Australian mainland, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Borneo (and, after the war, the Philippines), and they operated a large fleet of landing craft, barges, workboats, and tugs. These landing craft and small ships companies also conducted small amphibious landings in New Guinea and Bougainville. These operations were modest affairs when compared with the Borneo landings, and were shore-to-shore operations rather than ship-to-shore.

Douglas Watson, Disembarkation from HMAT “Manoora [1945]. AWM ART22476

On Bonis Peninsula

In North Bougainville, for example, with no roads and only narrow foot tracks, the only way to regularly supply the Australian campaign was by sea. The movement of troops, guns, stores and ammunition, as well as the evacuation of the wounded, had to be done by sea. In March 1945, the 26th Battalion and the 42nd Landing Craft Company, operating Australian Landing Craft 15s (ALC15s) and LCAs conducted a series of amphibious landings to outflank, bypass and cut the Japanese lines of communications in the Soraken Peninsula. The Australians forced the Japanese to abandon one position after another.

The Japanese had laced the Bonis Peninsula with pillboxes and bunkers astride the numerous tracks and roads. To overcome these intimidating defences, an ambitious plan was devised: a small force would land by barge at Porton Plantation and push inland to link up the with main Australian force moving north. Early on 8 June a force based around the 31st/51st Battalion’s A Company, 190 officers and men, landed at Porton. They established a small perimeter but one of the barges carrying the heavy weapons became grounded offshore on a reef. Within 50 minutes of coming ashore, the Australians came under machine-gun fire. By dawn it was clear the perimeter was ringed by Japanese pillboxes. The Japanese also controlled approaches to the beach. Only the accurate Australian artillery fire coming from Soraken prevented the Japanese from over-running the small Australian beachhead. Japanese pressure continued to tighten. Attempts to reinforce the Australians by sea during the night were abandoned when the landing craft came under heavy fire. The decision was made to evacuate the force. An officer afterwards described the hellish situation within the Australian perimeter:

“By early afternoon [9 June] the attacks had reached fanatical intensity. Our sector was subject to rifle fire from hidden snipers making it impossible to raise one’s head, except for hurried observation, without being subjected to fire. Conditions in the pits were now almost unbearable. Eating, drinking and movement were impossible, personnel were cramped from lack of movement and the continued immersion in swamp water, and sun heated our rifles until they were almost too hot to handle.”

Frank Norton, Japanese suicide bomber attempting to crash on HMAS Westralia, [1945]. AWM ART23010

Rescuing landing craft broke through to the beach late in the afternoon on 9 June. Overloaded, three landing craft became grounded. One floated off but the other two remained stuck. Low flying RAAF aircraft, as well as ongoing artillery support, tried to protect the men trapped in the landing craft, but they still came under fire from the Japanese. During the night one of the stranded craft drifted off. Finally, in the early hours of 11 June, the survivors were rescued and brought to Soraken. One soldier afterwards described the ordeal: “The intense heat of the day, fatigue and exposure, plus the fact that we had not slept for three days and nights was beginning to take effect. Men often collapsed due to their exhaustion. A few were delirious. Men were half deaf from the continual explosion of bombs, shelling, and machine-gun fire.”

Of the 190 men in the initial assault, 22 were killed or missing, and 62 were wounded. More were hospitalised. Five other men were killed from the rescuing landing craft company and seven were wounded. The planning for Porton had been rushed. Mistakes were made at all levels. Although landing behind the Japanese had worked successfully at Sorakan, the Australians were pushing their luck to try these tactics again. The reefs made the seaborne approach to Porton dangerous, and the force was too small to push inland. By daylight the Japanese had gained control of the approaches to the beach, making it impossible to unload the stores barge or to land reinforcements. The defeat was also due to the failure of an infantry force to break through from inland and link with the Australians at Porton.

Troops from the 31st/51st Battalion disembarking from ALC15s landing at Soraken Peninsula, North Bougainville, 25 May 1945. AWM 092562

Much of the fighting in the SWPA in 1942 was conducted by the army and air forces in grinding, attritional actions in Papua and New Guinea. In late 1943 General MacArthur went on the offensive. Amphibious warfare enabled the Allied navies to facilitate MacArthur’s advance. The US-led invasions of Leyte and Lingayen Gulfs in the Philippines, in October 1944 and January 1945, were vast undertakings. The Australian landings on Borneo in May–July 1945 were among the largest amphibious operations ever conducted by Australian forces.

The development and application of amphibious warfare in 1944–45, when combined with Allied dominance over the Japanese at sea, in the air and in intelligence, offered MacArthur the ability to manoeuvre his Allied forces and to transport large numbers of troops, vehicles and stores across the vast theatre of the South West Pacific. “No longer would it be necessary for MacArthur’s troops to make frontal assaults on skillfully prepared positions,” Vice Admiral Barbey wrote later. “From now on enemy strong points could be bypassed and Allied troops landed on lightly defended beaches of their own choosing.”

Equipment being loaded aboard American LSTs on Morotai in preparation for the Australian amphibious invasion of Tarakan, April 1945. AWM 018439

About the author

Dr Karl James is Head, Military History Section, at the Australian War Memorial.