The Battle of Milne Bay - 75th anniversary
Today, 31 August, marks the 75th anniversary of the high point of the Battle for Milne Bay in the Second World War. Earlier today the Clark Davis Ivins Memorial Travel Grant Program was launched at the Australian National University and this was appropriate, because exactly 75 years ago, Private Clark Ivins was mortally wounded during the Battle of Milne Bay. This was a crucial battle in the defence of Australia and it is important to remember it.
In this evening’s lecture I will be looking at the broader picture of why the battle was fought and why it was important in the defence of Australia. I will be discussing some of the key commanders involved in the higher direction of the battle. I will be looking at the importance of intelligence. And most importantly, I will be looking at what actually happened in the battle.
Over the past fifteen years there has been considerable debate in Australia about whether the Japanese intended to invade Australia. This debate has been connected to the government’s decision in 2008 to designate the first Wednesday in September as the Battle of Australia Day. Critics of this decision state that there never was a specific battle of Australia. Supporters of the decision claim that Australia was defended in a series of battles, including Coral Sea, Kokoda and Milne Bay, which, they say, should be remembered. Further, they point out that Kokoda and Milne Bay were fought in Papua, which was actually an Australian territory – that is, that Australia was already under attack. The proponents for the battle of Australia Day selected the first Wednesday in September because the first week of September was the turning point in the battles at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail.
Whatever the merits of this decision might be, the plain fact is that the Japanese never planned to invade mainland Australia. But this does not mean that Australia was not under dire threat during this period.
Rather than directly invading Australia, on 15 March 1942 the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters agreed to capture Port Moresby and the southern Solomons, and ‘to isolate Australia’ by seizing Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia. The Japanese planned to form a defensive ring around their Greater East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, and if Australia could be isolated it would no longer be a base for a US counter-offensive.
The security of Australia therefore depended 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.
The Japanese made several attempts to capture Port Moresby. The first attempt took place in May 1942 when an invasion fleet sailed from Rabaul. In air battles on 7 and 8 May American aircraft sunk one and damaged another Japanese aircraft carrier in the battle of the Coral Sea. The Americans had similar losses, but the Japanese called off their sea-borne invasion of Port Moresby, which would now have to await the conclusion of Japan’s next offensive, the attack on Midway in early June
In the battle of Midway in June 1942 the Americans surprised the Japanese carrier force, sinking four of their carriers for the loss of one carrier. The battle had an immediate effect on operations in the New Guinea area. Japan postponed plans to seize New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa; instead, it was now even more urgent to capture Port Moresby.
With the loss of the carriers, an amphibious operation was no longer possible, and the local Japanese commander, General Hyakutake in Rabaul, was ordered to plan an overland drive over the Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby. Japanese forces were already at Guadalcanal in the southern Solomons. The stage was set for three major battles in August - Kokoda, Milne Bay and Guadalcanal.
We need to be clear on the Japanese intentions. They wanted to secure Port Moresby because it provided a key base to defend the New Guinea area. It is not generally realised that the Owen Stanley Range provided not only a barrier to troops moving across the island, but also to aircraft. When the big tropical thunderheads closed in, aircraft could not cross the mountains. Aircraft based on the north coast of Papua or Rabaul could not easily dominate the Coral Sea and attack the north coast of Australia, but they could do so from Port Moresby. Furthermore, if the Japanese could seize a base at Milne Bay, at the south eastern tip of New Guinea, they would not need to fly over the Owen Stanley Range.
Let us leave the Japanese plans for a moment and look briefly at what was happening in Australia to counter this Japanese threat.
In March 1942 the American General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia to take up his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Southwest Pacific Area. MacArthur had command of all the Australian, United States and Dutch forces in Australia and the islands to the north. He had three key subordinates, a US Navy officer who commanded the Allied Naval Forces, Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey, who commanded the Allied Land Forces, and US Lieutenant General George Kenney, who commanded the Allied Air Forces. By July 1942 MacArthur’s headquarters, composed of almost solely US Army officers, was in Brisbane.
MacArthur was already a famous American general. He had commanded the US and Philippines forces in the Philippines, but he had been defeated in the Philippines, and knew that he could not afford to be defeated again.
Blamey was a highly experienced commander who had recently commanded the Australian forces in the Middle East. At this stage the Australian Army provided the vast majority of the Allied Land Forces. Most of Blamey’s infantry divisions came from the part-time militia, which had been mobilised on the outbreak of the war with Japan. The volunteer divisions from the Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, had gained valuable combat experience in the Middle East and Malaya, but in July only one and a half of these AIF divisions were back in Australia. One was still serving in the Middle East. One had gone into captivity after fighting in Malaya, Singapore, and islands to the north, and half a division was in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. To counter the Japanese threat in New Guinea, earlier in the year two militia brigades had been deployed to Port Moresby. But most of the Allied land and air units were still in Australia
The American success at Midway changed the strategic equation and provided an opportunity to take the offensive. MacArthur wanted to mount a major assault against the Japanese base at Rabaul [click]. 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 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. Like the Japanese, MacArthur had realised the importance of the Milne Bay area. At the end of June American engineers plus anti-aircraft units began arriving to begin construction of an airstrip.
On 11 July the 7th Australian militia Brigade, commanded by Brigadier John Field, began arriving at Milne Bay to protect the new air base. An engineer in civil life, Field had commanded the 2/12th Battalion at Tobruk. His brigade’s three battalions, the 9th, the 25th, and the 61st were all from Queensland. The brigade was supported by a battery of field artillery, two batteries of anti-aircraft artillery and a company of engineers,
Meanwhile, Admiral 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. 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 Ranges. This message, which one senior code-breaker called ‘one of the three most important to be decoded in the war’, was disregarded by MacArthur’s intelligence staff.
Nonetheless, MacArthur and Blamey reacted to the news that the Japanese were likely to land a small force at Buna. They ordered the Commander of New Guinea Force at Port Moresby, Major General Basil Morris, to send troops across the Kokoda Track to secure the Buna area. 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 the Buna area. 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. The 18th Brigade and its commander, Brigadier George Wootten, had fought at Tobruk in 1941.
The 7th and 18th Brigades would form a small division, known as Milne Force, under Major-General Cyril Clowes. Like Wootten, Clowes was a Duntroon graduate, and both had served in the First World War. Clowes had commanded the Australian Corps artillery in the Greek campaign in 1941
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 as seriously as they should have. As MacArthur told the US Army Chief of Staff, General George 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 Track, 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.
Let’s then look more closely at the Milne Bay battle. Milne Bay provided a secure anchorage for Allied or Japanese ships. MacArthur had ordered the construction of airstrips there from which Allied planes would be able to attack Rabaul and operate along the north coast of Papua and into the Solomon Sea.
Conversely, for the Japanese to approach Port Moresby along the south coast of Papua they would have to seize the vital Milne Bay airstrips. Believing that there were about 20 or 30 aircraft based at Milne Bay, and that the airfields were protected by only two or three companies of infantry, the Japanese decided to land about 2,000 marines, in an offensive to be coordinated with an attack on Port Moresby over the Kokoda Trail.
But they grossly underestimated the number of Allied troops that had been deployed by MacArthur. When Major-General Clowes assumed command of Milne Force on 22 August his force numbered 8,824 troops, 7,459 from the Australian Army and 1,365 from the US Army. Of these only about 4,500 were infantry; the remainder were engineers (mainly American) building the airstrips, and anti-aircraft units to protect them from air attack. As the earlier movie indicated, two RAAF Kittyhawk fighter squadrons, Nos 75 and 76, commanded by Squadron Leaders Les Jackson and Peter Turnbull, were based at Milne Bay. The RAAF operations at Milne Bay were being directed by Group Captain Bill Garing, known as Bull Garing.
In preparing the defences of Milne Bay, both Clowes and Field had faced substantial difficulties. There were few roads or bridges and Field’s militiamen had to spend much time on labouring tasks, rather than on training for operations. It rained constantly, turning the area into a sea of mud, and communications between the various units were poor. The soldiers even had to draw their own maps of the area. Troops were unused to the tropics and Milne Bay was one of the worst areas for malaria. Wootten’s AIF brigade was more experienced, but arrived only a short time before the Japanese attack.
In deploying his forces Clowes was faced with a number of problems Milne Bay is situated between two peninsulas and is roughly rectangular in shape, running about forty kilometres from east to west and ten kilometres wide at the open, eastern end. On the north and south coasts the jungle-covered mountains come down almost to the coast, but at the western end there is a swampy plain where the airfields were being built.
In many ways it was like defending an island. There was, and still is, no road to Port Moresby. Not only could the Japanese sail at will into Milne Bay, but they could land troops either to the north or south of the peninsulas and approach the airstrips overland. The Allies could only resupply Milne Force by sea, and Allied vessels were exposed to Japanese naval and air attacks.
Clowes assessed that the Japanese would probably land on the north coast of the bay and advance along it towards the airstrips at the western end. He therefore gave Brigadier Field’s 7th Brigade the task of defending the head of the bay, near Airstrip No 3, [click] while he kept Wootten’s 18th Brigade in reserve further inland near Airstrip No 1. Thus he gave the more static task to the less experienced militiamen, keeping the Middle East veterans for the mobile counter-attack role.
Allied intelligence played an important role in the lead up and during the battle of Milne Bay. By this stage US Navy signal intelligence units in Melbourne and Hawaii were breaking some of the Japanese Navy codes intermittently. On 28 July MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, Brigadier General Willoughby surmised that the Japanese had designs on Milne Bay. Early in August Japanese reconnaissance planes appeared over Milne Bay, and along with other fragments of information the Allies had their suspicious confirmed about Japanese intentions. It was this information which had caused MacArthur to rush the 18th Brigade to Milne Bay.
General Kenney tried to mount air attacks against the Japanese to prevent their landing at Milne Bay but ‘few pilots could pick their way through a violent storm front to attack the rain shrouded [Japanese] ships’. Clowes and Group Captain Garing were warned, in general terms, that their force was soon to be attacked. But they could do little to interfere when the Japanese landed on the north coast of the Bay on the night on 25-26 August. Clowes had no naval forces, coastal guns or searchlights, and the Japanese forces could land where they wished.
During the night and the following two days the 61st militia Battalion fought a determined delaying action as it was driven back along the north coast towards Airstrip No 3. The defence was assisted by the fine work of the Kittyhawk squadrons, which operated from Airstrip No 1 and strafed the attacking Japanese. Australian aircraft also destroyed several Japanese barges which otherwise might have been used to move men and supplies along the coast. The aircraft operated from an airfield that consisted of a narrow steel mesh laid out on boggy ground. American engineers had to work ceaselessly to scrape away the mud oozing up through the mesh of the strips. At times Japanese aircraft strafed the strip, sometimes while the Kittyhawks were rearming.
Uncertain as to whether the Japanese were going to land further troops in his rear, Clowes kept the majority of his forces in reserve, but he assigned the 2/10th AIF Battalion, a South Australian battalion, to Field to relieve the 61st Battalion. Believing that the Japanese numbered some 5,000 men, the commanding officer of the 2/10th Battalion moved east along the coast to meet the Japanese.
The Kittyhawks continued to play a crucial role in supporting the Australian infantry. On 27 August Squadron Leader Turnbull again led a low-level attack seeking to destroy a Japanese tank. Possibly struck by ground fire he crashed and was killed. The famous ace fighter pilot, Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott, who had downed 16 German planes in Europe, took over as squadron commander.
During the night of 27 August the Japanese attacked the Australians in a vicious battle. The Japanese had two small tanks which roared into the forward Australian positions. As the tanks sprayed the defenders with machine-gun fire and tried to crush any wounded Australians who could not move out of the way, the defenders had no means of retaliation. The ‘sticky’ anti-tank grenades with which they had been supplied either failed to stick or failed to explode.
By the morning of 28 August the 2/10th Battalion had lost 43 killed and 26 wounded. As the official history puts it, ‘the 2/10th Battalion, a proud and experienced battalion of volunteers, had been thrust back in their first fight with the Japanese - and by forces which, as it was learnt later, were not overwhelmingly superior but which were made of brave and determined men whose plan of attack, centring on the use of their two tanks, worked well’.
To assess the situation, during the morning a patrol from the 2/10th Battalion returned to the battle-site and came across Private Albert Abraham from Broken Hill, who had a leg riddled with bullets and had been left behind in the dark. Five times he had rolled aside to avoid a charging Japanese tank. The patrol found that Abraham was still holding off four Japanese. They had originally numbered ten. He had killed six. The Australian patrol killed the other four and carried Abraham out. Abraham was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
By this time General MacArthur in Brisbane was becoming intensely concerned about the apparent Japanese success at Milne Bay landing, which was followed soon after by news of a Japanese victory at Isurava on the Kokoda Trail. On 28 August he warned General Marshall in Washington that the situation might become critical unless he was provided with naval support. Two days, in a 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 unless [Japanese] reinforcements are landed but . . . I am not yet convinced of the efficiency of the Australian troops’.
Also on 28 August he sent a message to General Rowell in Port Moresby that Clowes was to ‘clear the north shore of Milne Bay without delay’. Confident of Clowes’ handling of the battle Rowell did not send on the order. With torrential rain, poor communications and few roads, Clowes could not move quickly. And he still faced the threat of a landing in his rear. On the afternoon of 29 August aircraft reported a cruiser and nine Japanese destroyers heading towards Milne Bay, and around midnight they shelled his positions, although it was comparatively light and caused no casualties.
Clowes gathered his forces defend to Airfield No 3, where he could make full use of his defensive firepower. The airstrip was defended by the 25th and 61st militia Battalions and US engineers, and they were supported by field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery. Meanwhile patrols were sent forward to locate the enemy. With Japanese approaching the airstrips, Squadron Leader Truscott was ordered to withdraw his Kittyhawks to Port Moresby. Although the aircraft temporarily withdrew, Truscott personally refused to go.
At 3 am in the morning of 31 August the Japanese mounted the expected attack on Airstrip No 3. Three times they formed up and attacked, and three times they were cut down by the torrent of artillery and machine-gun fire. Just before dawn three bugle calls were heard and comparative silence followed, except for the groans and cries of the wounded.
The diary of a Japanese Marine in the 3rd Kure Naval Landing Force gives an attacker’s view: ‘A red signal went up and fell to the right of where we were [he wrote]. Heavy machine-gun volleys started and trench mortars and grenade throwers went into action. There didn’t seem to be any place where we could put ourselves but nevertheless we advanced. We were like rats in a bag and men were falling all around. I thought we were going to be wiped out and then we were told to withdraw for the time being and we retreated’.
Soon after 9 am the 2/12th AIF Battalion moved through the forward militia defensive positions and began the counter-offensive. The 2/12th Battalion was initially raised in Tasmania, with about a fifth of the soldiers from north Queensland. Fighting against determined Japanese rear-guards the 2/12 Battalion advanced slowly. It was during this battle that Private Ivins, who was a member of the 2/12th Battalion, was mortally wounded. The advance was co-ordinated by Brigadier Wootten and the headquarters of the 18th Brigade, while his rear was protected by the 9th militia Battalion.
That night about 300 Japanese suddenly appeared from the jungle valleys on the left of the advancing Australians and attacked two companies of the 9th Battalion. In a savage two-hour battle the Australians claimed that they killed 90 of their attackers.
Next day Wootten resumed the advance, bringing the 2/9th AIF Battalion, a Queensland battalion, forward by boat to take over from the 2/12th Battalion. Again the Australian Kittyhawks supported the advancing infantry. By 4 September the Japanese had been driven back about 10 kilometres but were still fighting stubbornly. About midday most companies of the 2/9th Battalion were in action.
When one of the forward sections was held up by fire from three enemy machine-guns, the section commander, Corporal Jack French from Crows Nest, Queensland, moved forward and with grenades and Thompson sub-machine-gun cleared all three Japanese positions. He was killed as he cleared the final Japanese position and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 5 September Clowes received a signal from Brisbane that the Japanese would land more troops during the night, and that night his forward troops heard the sound of boats moving between ship and shore. Next day the Australians reached the main Japanese base area, but met little opposition.
About 10 pm that night Japanese ships once more sailed up the bay. At the head of the bay the British merchant vessel Anshun was unloading urgently needed ammunition and stores while nearby was the hospital ship Manunda with its hospital colours and lights. A Japanese cruiser turned its searchlights onto both Allied ships, sunk the Anshun, but did not fire on the hospital ship. The Japanese also shelled various Australian shore positions. The Japanese ships returned the following night, again illuminated the Manunda, and shelled the Airstrip No 1 area.
During the night of 6 September the last Japanese forces were evacuated from the Milne Bay area. The troops remaining ashore were left to make their way overland towards Buna. Most were tracked down and killed by Australian patrols. About 2,800 Japanese landed in the area, and of these perhaps 750 were killed.
The Japanese Navy’s respect for the Rules of War in not firing at the Manunda was not matched by their Marine counterparts ashore. As the Australians regained the territory held temporarily by the Japanese they found instances of atrocities committed against captured or wounded Australians and also against the local natives. These atrocities were later investigated and confirmed by the Australian judge, Sir William Webb. It was a sobering experience for both the militiamen and the Middle East veterans. But then, after the Japanese failed in their attack on Airstrip No 3, they apparently had also shot their own wounded comrades.
The battle of Milne Bay was significant for a number of reasons. Field Marshal Sir William Slim, in his book Defeat into Victory, commented that his 14th Army in Burma took heart from the ‘first undoubted defeat’ of the Japanese on land. There is an element of truth in this claim, although the Japanese garrison on Tulagi near Guadalcanal had been defeated by the US Marines earlier in August, so it was not strictly the first defeat on land. But as General Rowell has pointed out, Milne Bay was the first time that ‘the Japanese had been defeated at a time and on ground of their own choosing’. For the first time in the period of nine months since their invasion of Malaya, a Japanese invading force had been thrown back into the sea.
With fighting in the balance at Guadalcanal and on the Kokoda Trail, the Japanese defeat instilled much needed confidence in both the Allied commanders and their forces. The battle had shown that the Japanese were not infallible. They had made a strategic error, while the Allied decision to build a base at Milne bay had proven to be a masterstroke.
Following the outstanding performance of the 39th militia Battalion on the Kokoda Trail, the militia battalions at Milne Bay had performed well, considering their inexperience and lack of training. As Brigadier Field, the only member of his brigade to have served in the Middle East, commented, ‘for untried troops...they had done splendidly’.
At Milne Bay, as well as on the Kokoda Trail, two approaches to Australian defence policy and two sides of the Australian Army came together in defence of Australia. For the first time the hardened men of the AIF, who had volunteered to serve in the Imperial cause overseas, fought side-by-side with the young conscripts of the militia, whose service was restricted to Australian territory. And for the first time an Australian division was commanded in action by a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
The battle was also the first action by American Army units in New Guinea. A total of 14 Americans were killed, mainly from the 43rd Engineer Regiment. The Australians lost 167 killed and 205 wounded, the majority being from the 18th Brigade. Private Clark Ivins was among the wounded, although he would later die.
For the first time in the Pacific, aircraft of the RAAF were able directly to support Australian infantry. General Rowell thought that the action of Nos 75 and 76 Squadrons on the first day ‘was probably the decisive factor’. Beaufighters from No 30 Squadron also operated from Milne Bay.
Airstrip No 3 was later renamed Turnbull Field in honour of Squadron Leader Turnbull, the commanding officer of No 76 Squadron, who as I mentioned was killed in action on 27 August. The airstrip is no longer in use, but the kunai-covered strip through the jungle and oil palms is still clearly visible.
There, beside a memorial to Peter Turnbull is another memorial and a plaque with these words. ‘In memory of the officers, NCO’s and men of the 7 & 18 Aust Inf Bdes who gave their lives in defending Turnbull Field. This marks the western most point in Milne Bay of the Jap advance Aug-Sep 42, also the southern most point of the Jap advance in the S.W. Pacific. 83 unknown Jap Marines lie buried here. Erected as a tribute by Australian forces serving in this area. June 1944’. The Australian Army at the time knew the importance of the battle. Today, 31 August, we remember the high point of the Battle of Milne Bay 75 years ago.