|25 August 1942
|07 September 1942
Second World War, 1939-1945
Battle of Milne Bay
Offering a sheltered harbour, Milne Bay, on the south-eastern tip of Papua was selected for development as an Allied base - the key component of which was three airstrips - in 1942. These facilities also made it a key stepping stone for the Japanese in their drive towards Port Moresby and late on the night of 25 August 1942 a force of 2,000 marines were landed to capture them. From the beginning, the Japanese were at a disadvantage. The marines were landed 11 kilometres east of their intended landing area, and their intelligence had significantly underestimated the Allied garrison. Whereas the Japanese believed there no more than a few hundred troops defending the airstrip, there were actually almost 9,000 Allied troops including two Australian infantry brigades - the 7th and the 18th. The Allies had the additional advantage of having air support close at hand because the 75 and 76 Squadrons from the RAAF, both equipped with P-40 fighter bombers, were also based at Milne Bay. Initially, however, the Japanese met with their accustomed success. Supported by two light tanks, they advanced steadily westward. The 61st Battalion was first into action and slowed the Japanese, although unable to hold them back. The 2/10th Battalion was moved up on the night of 27 August, but faulty dispositions and other command failings, meant it was brushed aside by a renewed Japanese thrust, and disintegrated in a confused withdrawal. Reaching the edge of the eastern most airstrip on 28 August the intensity of Japanese operations fell away as they made preparations for their attack, which included landing 800 reinforcements. In the early hours of 31 August they charged the defences manned by the 25th and 61st Australian Battalions and the United States 43rd Engineer Regiment and 709th Anti Aircraft Battery. The Japanese suffered greviously, largely due to machine gun and artillery fire, and withdrew by dawn. Throughout their operations the Japanese were constantly harassed during daylight hours by the P-40s.
With the coming of daylight on 31 August, the commander of Milne Force, Australian Major General Cyril Clowes, seized the opportunity to counterattack and ordered the 2/12th Battalion to pursue the retreating Japanese. Clowes was in a difficult position throughout the battle because, although he outnumbered the Japanese, he received multiple reports indicating other Japanese to his flanks and rear. It was for this reason, that initially only a single battalion was sent after the Japanese. Despite the skilled and determined rear guard action that was characteristic of the Japanese at this stage of the war, the 2/12th, supported by the 2/9th Battalion from 2 September onwards, steadily advanced along the north shore of Milne Bay. Although the Japanese high command advocated a reinforcement of the force at Milne Bay, its commander, noting increasing sickness and exhaustion among his troops recommended an immediate withdrawal. Between 4 and 7 September the Japanese were evacuated at night from around their original landing areas at Waga Waga and Wandala. Of the 2,800 Japanese landed, only 1,318 re-embarked. It was estimated that up to 750 lay dead around Milne Bay and the majority of the remainder were killed trying to escape overland to the Japanese base at Buna. Allied deaths included 167 Australians and 14 Americans. Milne Bay is remembered as the first defeat of the Japanese on land during the Pacific War. Despite an oppressive combination of extreme humidity, voracious insects, and the tropical disease both combined to create, Milne Bay remained an important Allied staging area until victories in New Guinea made other more suitable areas available from September 1943 onwards.