Command In New Guinea

Steve Gower

This paper deals with command in New Guinea in the period August to November 1942. It follows on from David Horner's account of events at the grand strategic level. I will be focussing on the next level down: command at the campaigning level, or what is now called the operational level of war. The period I will be dealing with was a time when Australians felt imperilled; it was a time when the stakes were extraordinarily high; it was a time when Australia, to her eternal shame, was forced to commit poorly-equipped and, in some cases, poorly-trained, men against a determined foe who, until then, had been undefeated on land.

I will be talking about the principal senior officers caught up in the events of this time which have been controversial since. In doing so, I hope to throw some light on the demands of command in war and to make some observations. I am going to assume you are generally aware of the chronological details of the actions on the Kokoda Trail during the period.

First, of course, was that man, General Sir Thomas Albert Blamey.

Blamey

Blamey's career is probably very well known to most in this audience.

It is fair to say he was more a staff officer than a warrior commander, although his time in the Middle East during the Second World War had given him ample experience in high command. He had commanded a battalion for three weeks and brigade for six in the First World War; he was regarded as a brilliant staff offer under Monash, and that is where he first made his name.

At the time of his return to Australia to become commander-in-chief of the Australian Military Forces and simultaneously commander of Allied Land Forces under MacArthur, there were many interpersonal tensions in the Army. Ambitious and, at times, disloyal regular and militia officers vied for patronage and advancement. Blamey never had all their support. He was said not to curry favour, and at times his very actions seemed to fuel antipathy. He enjoyed life to the full, in a manner soldiers understood.

With the pressures in Canberra forcing him to go to Port Moresby in September 1942, one influential commentator (William Dunstan of the Melbourne Herald) said that he was being sent to give him one final chance.

True or not, he was under considerable pressure, and could be expected not to display much tolerance for those who got in his way, or did not execute his requirements.

Rowell

Lieutenant General S. F. (Syd) Rowell was the Commander New Guinea Force. He had been promoted in April 1942 and was then the youngest lieutenant general in the Army. He had graduated from the Royal Military College at age 19 and served with the 3rd Light Horse in the First World War. Unfortunately, he returned to Australia without seeing combat. Accordingly, he missed the command and battle experience that many of his contemporaries had. Syd did not, as soldiers say, have a good war.

He was recognised as a brilliant staff officer, and, indeed, his Imperial Defence College report described him as the most eminent of British and Dominion officers.

Initially General Staff Officer, Grade 1, of the 6th Division, he became the Brigadier General Staff (the chief operational staff officer) of 1st Australian Corps. His fine staff work assisted greatly in the evacuation of the 6th Division from Greece. He was also involved in planning the 7th Division's operations into Syria against the Vichy French. During his time in the Middle East he clashed badly with Blamey on several occasions. After Greece, he let it be known he did not wish to serve closely with Blamey again, because he doubted his moral and physical courage.

A sensitive, austere, morally upright, religious and proud man, it was said by a contemporary that "the trouble with Syd is that he expects everyone to be a saint". General Rowell must have been a constantly disappointed man, for in the hurly-burly of a field army, sainthood is a rare commodity.

Rowell arrived in Port Moresby on 11 August to assume command of New Guinea Force. Elements of I Corps headquarters also came up from Australia. Rowell took over from Major General Basil Morris, the previous commander of New Guinea Force, who then moved to the subordinate command of the Australian and New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU). I will return to Morris shortly.

Herring

Lieutenant General Edmund (Ned) Herring was commander of II Corps in Australia when Rowell went to New Guinea.

A Victorian Rhodes Scholar, he served in the British Field Artillery in the First World War, and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and a Military Cross (MC). Between the wars he developed a successful practice as a barrister and continued on in the militia, serving under Blamey when the latter commanded the 3rd Division at the same time he was Victorian Police Commissioner.

The urbane and refined Herring struck a friendship, perhaps oddly in the eyes of others, with the more rough and tumble Blamey. Perhaps it was the membership of the League of National Security that brought them together.

He went overseas as CRA (Commander, Royal Artillery) 6th Division and did well in commanding British and Australian artillery units in the Western Desert and in Greece. It was not really a surprise that he was promoted to take over the command of the 6th Division when it moved into Syria on garrison duties. He had his detractors, most of whom envied his style and what was perceived as a privileged upbringing.

One particularly envious infantry brigadier, among others, was A. S. "Tubby" Allen, who was often at odds with him. Allen persisted in trying to tell Herring how to do his job. His easy relations with British officers were disliked, and his position in Melbourne society and his professional achievements were viewed suspiciously, as were his relations with Blamey.

Herring, for his part, was critical of Allen's performance in Greece and privately condemned his prolix and dramatic signals.

On his return to Australia, he went to the northern territory, replacing Major General D. V. J. Blake in April 1942. This was then seen as a priority posting, he drove his staff relentlessly, improved the tactics and physical fitness of the forces located there and rehearsed counter-invasion plans. He was quite ruthless in sacking several poorly performing militia brigadiers within his command. By May, the results of his training were evident. Although not a strictly an active service command, his performance in Darwin earned him Blamey's further respect.

George Vasey (soon to be mentioned further), who wrote prolifically to his wife, summed Herring up as follows: "[Herring] realises his limitations - of that type of person, he is quite the best - educated, pleasing personally.willing to learn. And he does direct and control the business. Even mediocre direction is better than none".

Morris

I now return to Major General Basil Morris.

Basil Morris had gone to Port Moresby initially as the commander of the military district. It was seen as somewhat of a backwater, a safe place for a man of his undistinguished record. He had previously held an AIF appointment in Bombay, a posting he found himself in after being moved on by Blamey from being in charge of setting up the AIF administration base in the Middle East.

A gentleman of courtesy and honour, he readily admitted he had no pretensions to being a tactician. his background was coast artillery and like others with that specialty had served in the Australian siege batteries on the western front in the First World War. Vasey had commented that he was "a very good scout: no brains, but honest and stout-hearted". (A typically incisive Vasey comment). Morris was one of those who believed that air power would prove decisive. He had little knowledge of the terrain and regarded the Owen Stanleys as preventing any serious movement on Port Moresby from the north.

Morris had presided over a build-up that started when the 30th Brigade was sent there shortly after war broke out in the Pacific. He saw the role of his force as, basically, protecting Port Moresby as a base for aircraft.

The 30th Brigade's move up was a shambles. It comprised the 39th, 49th and 53rd Battalions and the 13th Field Regiment. In the 39th Battalion, most soldiers were aged 18-21 years: The battalion would subsequently undergo a dreadful combat experience, but the remnants would come out erect - although under another leader, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner. The 53rd Battalion had over 100 men, essentially "press-ganged" from Sydney. Sadly, it was never to do well. As for the 49th Battalion, Morris said it was the worst unit in the Army.

The brigade's initial commander, Brigadier Neville Hatton, was relieved by an AIF officer, Selwyn Porter, who had good operational experience as a battalion commander (2/31st Battalion) and had a reputation as a forceful driver. He assessed the brigade after his arrival as "not fit for battle" and demanded - and gained - seasoned AIF junior officers as replacements.

It was in these circumstances that Morris, now a major general and no longer in a backwater, received a message that "a serious attack against you and your command will develop in the immediate future", but to buoy him up, he also received a signal from Blamey that "Australia looks to you to maintain her outposts and is confident that the task is in good hands"!

That threat ended with the battle of the Coral Sea, but Land Headquarters (LHQ) determined to send him reinforcements - not an AIF brigade, but another militia brigade, the 14th. This decision was controversial, to say the least. Only one of its battalions (the 3rd) was to play a worthwhile role.

Chester Wilmot, the war correspondent, believed LHQ was ignorant about the quality of troops, and that this was inexcusable. He said "the decision to keep the best troops until last was 'criminal'". LHQ's ignorance about New Guinea would be a consistent feature throughout.

Perhaps there was time to train up the 14th and 30th brigades, but they were distracted by having to provide a labour force and guard the airfields. There was some training, but it was not necessarily related to the demands of jungle warfare against the Japanese.

At MacArthur's urging, limited offensives from Port Moresby were ordered. Kanga Force was formed to commence operations in the Markham Valley and against Wau. The forces at Milne Bay were built up and interest in the Kokoda Trail became heightened, given the Japanese landings on the north coast. But I believe that if ever an appointment demanded an officer with ideas, drive, force and enthusiasm, it was Morris's. It can be fairly said that Rowell inherited a situation of inadequately trained and prepared troops, poor planning for contingencies and a grossly inadequate administrative structure. Perhaps this was not all Morris's doing, but he does not appear to have distinguished himself.

Allen

General "Tubby" Allen, the GOC (General Officer Commanding) 7th Division, went forward to New Guinea at the same time as Rowell. A citizen soldier, and a self-made man, he had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the First World War and returned home a battalion commander, having served in Gallipoli and France and gained wide infantry experience.

In the Second AIF, he commanded a brigade in Bardia, Tobruk and Greece, and then was promoted to command the 7th Division in the Syrian campaign.

Herring's promotion was viewed very dimly by Allen, who felt he should have been preferred. As previously observed, there was enmity between the urbane barrister and the sometimes abrasive, and comparatively inarticulate, Allen.

He wrote a bitter letter of complaint to Blamey, asking where he stood after Herring's promotion over him, and pointing out that he had commanded everything from a platoon to a division in action. It is said that Blamey found it hard to forgive him for this, and Allen's loyalty and standing was then in doubt.

A brigade of Allen's 7th division, the 21st brigade, had preceded him to New Guinea. Its commander was Brigadier Arnold Potts.

Potts

Potts had taken command of the 21st Brigade in April and had trained it hard in the country behind what is now known as the Queensland sunshine coast.

He served in Gallipoli, was commissioned at 19, and awarded an MC and a MID (mention-in-dispatches).

A grazier, he only rejoined the militia shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, but was successively a company commander, 2IC (Second-in-Command) and CO (Commanding Officer) of the 2/16th Battalion, a fine and proud western Australian unit. By then, he had a DSO and another MID.

There is no doubt Potts was a good fighting regimental officer, but he had only had a very short time in the militia between the wars. Had he served longer, he might have learnt something about the duties of higher staff headquarters and formation tactics. I do not believe the Army gave him any protracted staff training at any time before he was plunged into possibly the most demanding task any brigadier might have been given, a task that probably would have daunted even the most battle-hardened brigadier.

Potts's lot was to be commander of Maroubra Force, a group that was to face overwhelming odds, under atrocious conditions with minimal logistic support.

For that, as I will mention, he was to receive scant, if any thanks: he was to be relieved and his force would be subject to an amazing tirade on a parade subsequently by the commander-in-chief.

Vasey

The final general I want to mention is Major General G. A. ("Bloody George") Vasey.

An RMC graduate and artillery officer, he did well in the First World War, emerging as a brigade major. In the lean, between-the-war years, he attended staff college at Quetta and was a brigade major again and GS02 (General Staff Officer, Grade 2) for a further three years in the Indian Army. he rose to prominence in the Second World War as a brigade commander in Greece, and subsequently in Crete, where his outstanding command and leadership abilities showed to advantage. Not surprisingly he returned as a major general and became Blamey's deputy CGS (Chief of General Staff), in effect his chief operational staff office at LHQ.

He worked well with Blamey, and respected and got on with Herring. It was no surprise really, except for Major General A. J. Boase, when he relieved him as GOC 6th Division after that formation had returned from the Middle East via Ceylon.

The command crisis

So much for setting the scene for when Rowell arrived to take command of New Guinea Force. In effect, he took over a campaign that had already begun with the Japanese landing in late July ( the 22nd) on the north coast. The force sent to counter them, Maroubra Force, had already been forced out of Kokoda.

Maroubra Force was formed around the units of 30th Brigade and in the space of less than two months was to have six changes of command.

Initially, the CO 39th Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Owen) was the force commander; then a major from 30th Brigade staff (Major A. G. Cameron) took over on Owen's death. Then Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner (the new CO of 39th Battalion) commanded the force, followed three days later by Brigadier Porter (Commander, 30th Brigade). But soon after, Potts came forward to take command. Potts's appointment as commander of Maroubra Force as the commander of the incoming AIF brigade can be justified, but the frequent changes of command must have made it very difficult to develop a cohesive force.

Potts was energetic, positive, and impatient with any prevailing "can't" doctrine, such as the prevailing wisdom that you "can't' carry more than 15 lbs", and you "can't" move far", and so on.

Initially, Potts was ordered to re-take Kokoda with Maroubra Force, while being re-supplied through Myola. The loss of transport aircraft, plus a very low rate of recovery of air-dropped supplies, caused this re-supply strategy to fail. Nowhere near the 20,000 lbs daily maintenance requirement was getting through.

Potts had to hold his two AIF battalions initially at Myola, leaving the other elements of Maroubra Force hard-pressed and exposed forward. Even when he was able to move forward, he was told by Allen to minimise numbers.

Soon Potts alarmed Rowell with his re-supply demands, especially for mortars, Vickers machine-guns, more ammunition, and comfort supplies - all seemingly reasonable requests. A staff officer was sent forward to attempt to sort things out: Porter was also sent to Myola.

The problems about re-supply were simply not understood; senior officers, including MacArthur, had very strange ideas about the terrain, and how the so-called "pass" could be held or indeed blocked by demolition. Rowell, it is said, also took some time to comprehend the situation as Commander New Guinea Force

The re-supply delays caused by maladministration lost Potts any chance he might have had to wrest back the initiative. He was forced to fight a bitter rearguard action back along the track as his lifeline.

There is evidence to support the view that Allen (in particular) and Rowell just did not appreciate the conditions being faced by Potts and his force. Allen started to think that Potts's honest situation reports and the continual withdrawals had caused a strain that impaired Potts's determination.

Potts was urged at one stage to hit the enemy with strong offensive patrols, orders hardly based on a proper understanding - and, at another time, Potts was urged (by Allen) to keep smiling.

Finally, a liaison officer was sent forward. His report, made without reference to Potts while he was involved in the brigade hill battle, alarmed Allen. At the same time, Rowell was under considerable higher level pressure, with statements by MacArthur that the "Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy. Aggressive leadership is lacking". Rowell made the decision to replace Potts. Allen was not consulted, but agreed afterwards, believing Potts was tired or had lost his grip. What is extraordinary is that no one of any seniority had gone forward to check the situation on the ground, and the assessments were made from the relative isolation and safety of Port Moresby and beyond. Charles Spry, the GSO1 of 7th Division, had offered to go forward, but this was not agreed to. Brigadier Henry Rourke, the chief of staff to Rowell, was unavailable, having had a nervous breakdown.

Porter once again took over less than three weeks after he had handed over to Potts.

Again Porter lasted only a few days in command of the depleted Maroubra Force, which had been reinforced by the 3rd battalion from 14th Brigade and some elements of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. Brigadier Ken Eather then arrived to takeover at the head of the fresh 25th Brigade.

Allen had faith in Eather, but when he too withdrew to the Imita Ridge, a much better defensive position, a storm broke out. He was told by Allen to "die there if necessary".

The US Army Air Forces element in Port Moresby considered evacuation, and in Canberra, the consequences of this final withdrawal made all the previous events pale into insignificance. MacArthur told Curtin that Blamey should go to Port Moresby 'to meet his responsibility to the Australian people". This piece of dramatic nonsense should have been denied by Curtin, I believe.

Rowell of course saw Blamey's arrival on 23 September as a psychological vote of no confidence. He thought Blamey had once again shown a lack of moral courage by not standing up to Curtin. He confided to Vasey, now there as GOC 6th Division, that he took a poor view of things, and was threatening to get out. Vasey told him to be cautious, as indeed he had counselled Rowell earlier as Deputy CGS.

Within days, Rowell was dismissed. Facing intense operational pressure, it seems he was incapable of accepting Blamey's presence in the vicinity of his headquarters. Ronald Hopkins, Rourke's replacement, thought Rowell had in effect sacked himself.

On the day he left Port Moresby the tide had turned. His ADC (aide-de-camp), Gordon Darling, told me that a signal came in from Allen to the effect that "the enemy is withdrawing, and we have won". A premature prediction by Allen, as it turned out.

Herring was to be Rowell's replacement, which should not have been a surprise given his performance in Darwin and the regard Blamey held him in. Vasey was happy. He feared Gordon Bennett might come - a fanciful fear given Blamey's views on Bennett, particularly after the Singapore debacle. Allen, of course, would have been most uneasy about the new appointment.

The advance back up the trail continued, but without Potts. He had been re-instated by Rowell, but removed again by Herring, and replaced by a man Herring had high regard for - Ivan Dougherty. Dougherty had been in Darwin with Herring.

The pressure continued on Allen, particularly from MacArthur through Blamey. The Herring/Blamey relationship developed well, with Herring meeting the commander-in-chief assiduously each night to discuss operational planning. A staff officer thought him to be "cautious, not brilliant: sound and careful". Herring would have been aware that Blamey was pushing Allen hard with signals such as "if you are feeling the strain, relief will be arranged - please be frank".

Allen became increasingly nettled, particularly by claims that he was advancing too slowly and a feeling by New Guinea Force that he was not using resources properly.

A few days later Blamey commented that "if it didn't take six days to send in a relief, I'd sack the old bastard".

Herring and Hopkins thought he was moving too slowly. For his part Allen believed this was inevitable given the terrain, strength of units, their condition, evacuation of wounded, and the lack of supplies. But after savage fighting and a further delay at Eora Creek, Blamey made a decision to replace him on the grounds of tiredness. Allen disagreed with the reason. Again no one from HQ New Guinea Force visited except an liaison office quite late in the advance. Perhaps Allen should have demanded one much earlier. His experience should have suggested that, or perhaps he just wanted to be left alone to get on with it. For that he could hardly be blamed.

Vasey in Port Moresby with the 6th Division, was ordered to go forward to take over. He did this on the 29 October, the day the Japanese abandoned their positions.

Vasey felt sorry for Allen, but felt he had no idea what a divisional HQ staff might do for a commander, and that the situation controlled him, not the reverse.

The Herring-Vasey combination was to serve New Guinea Force well until the end of the Buna-Gona-Sanananda fighting.

There was never again to be such a tumultuous period in the Australian Army.

The aftermath

So what happened to the main actors in these dramas?

Firstly, Blamey - he returned to Australia early in 1943, secure in his standing, but in reality no longer the commander of Allied Land Forces. His time in New Guinea had sidelined him. The controversy about events in New Guinea also damaged his standing, and there are some who revile him to this day. But he stayed on as commander-in-chief until the end of the war.

Potts was never to be given the credit or acknowledgement for the task he and his men undertook on the Kokoda Trail. Sent to Darwin, he regained an operational command in the islands at the end, but the official history notes his GOC was given strict orders to keep him reined in. Perhaps it was feared he might hatch some plan for redemption.

Allen also went to Darwin. He never commanded operationally again, and I have had personal experience of the bitterness one of his sons still feels about it all. A recommendation by Blamey for a knighthood was unsuccessful.

Rowell went off to the United Kingdom and was in the UK Directorate of Tactical Investigation, among other things. He was well out of the scene until the end of the war. It was Prime Minister Chifley who appointed him CGS (Chief of General Staff) to redress what was perceived, I think incorrectly on balance, as an injustice.

Herring left in due course to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and later Lieutenant Governor of that state.

Vasey established himself as arguably our best divisional commander. Sadly, he died off Cairns, Queensland, in an air crash in 1945. Whether he would have made CGS remains speculation.

Morris stayed on as commander of ANGAU. If ever there was a case for a sacking, his was probably it. But Blamey viewed him sympathetically, and he may have considered that three dismissals were probably enough.

Eather was to reach the rank of Major General, as did Dougherty. Porter became one after the war (he also became - like Blamey - Police Commissioner in Victoria). Hopkins also became a major general.

So what are my observations about all of this?

Observations

  • Firstly, with command comes pressure, sometimes extreme, to produce results. As a field commander you must get on with your superior if you hope to succeed. It is no good questioning his motives, his values, his judgement and expecting him to shield you completely. It is only diverting yourself from the task at hand to indulge in personal animosities and to take slights. Robustness and pragmatism are needed. Herring could get on with Blamey, as could Vasey with Herring. That is not to say they were sycophants in any way. Perhaps the clashes were inevitable: both Rowell and Allen had damaged their relationships with Blamey and Herring before the pressures of New Guinea. It was an additional self-imposed burden they had to carry.

  • It is unfortunate a proven brigade commander was not available to command 21st Brigade (someone of the H. C. H. Robertson style, perhaps), but I do not think it would have made much difference. Potts fought courageously given the very serious limitations imposed on him and lack of prior preparation by others, principally Morris .

  • It is hard to criticise Potts - a good, decent, capable militia officer. He had little, if any, staff training, and therefore may not have appreciated some of the subtle but important things: the influence of liaison officers from higher HQ; the absolute need to keep your commander informed at all times; and so on.

  • Rowell was inflexible - too sensitive and unbending - in Port Moresby. It was correct, I believe, for Blamey to remove him. There is enough pressure in war without tensions between commanders and subordinates. As it turned out, the Blamey-Herring-Vasey relationship served the Army well in late 1942 and early 1943.

  • You have to feel sorry for Allen - a man who served Australia with distinction in two world wars against six of the king's enemies - but there was a crop of new divisional commanders coming through, and Syria was regarded as a "near run thing".

  • And we come back to poor old Potts. Others were to get honours for the Owen Stanley campaign - he got nothing. Perhaps it underscores the old saying, well known to military men: "never be the first to command in a campaign".

Major General Steve Gower AO (Ret'd) is Director of the Australian War Memorial.