Milne Bay was Japan’s first land defeat of the war, but its victor won few laurels.
By Karl James.
Major General Cyril Clowes shortly after the battle of Milne Bay, 1 October 1942. A man of few words, he was cautious and calm under pressure. AWM 013337
Major General Cyril Clowes very nearly did not make it to Milne Bay, at Papua’s southeastern tip. Flying from Port Moresby with some of his staff in an American transport aircraft, he arrived at Milne Bay on 13 August 1942 after a hazardous flight with an inexperienced pilot who had got lost and with his fuel nearly exhausted. “Yes, we did get here,” Clowes wrote to his friend “dear old Syd” a few days later, “largely by guess and by God.” Flying through pouring rain and low-lying cloud cover, with a pilot who had no maps and a “complete lack of knowledge of the country”, to land on an airstrip covered in water “all helps to add an interest to the trip!” Braving the perils of flying in Papua, Clowes had been sent to Milne Bay to assume command of the Australian forces in the area.
More than 35 kilometers long and over 15 kilometers wide, Milne Bay is a sheltered deep-water harbour, surrounded by the heavily wooded Stirling Range to the north and south, and on the northern shore, a narrow coastal strip, soggy with sago and mangrove swamps. The area was well known for its torrential rain, frequent flooding and malaria. The first Australian soldiers and American engineers arrived in Milne Bay in June to begin work on constructing airstrips, roads and wharves. The area soon became a large base with three airstrips, although conditions remained basic and less than pleasant. One soldier later wrote:
Even without the war Milne Bay would have been a hell hole – it was a terrible place. The sun hardly ever shined and it rained all the time. It was stinking hot and bog holes everywhere … It was a disease-ridden place – it was terrible.
Flight Lieutenant Nat Gould, a pilot with No. 75 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), described Milne Bay as “awful”. The air strips were “primitive”, he remembered “literally just carved through the coconut trees … And [the] rain, my goodness me, I don’t think it ever stopped raining.” Clowes quickly realised the challenges posed by Milne Bay’s environment. The low cloud cover and nearby high mountains made flying dangerous, while the frequent rain storms turned the roads into quagmires which bogged vehicles. This, he commented, was “one of the real outposts of the Empire!”
A professional officer, the pipe-smoking, 50-year-old Clowes spent his working life in the service of Australia and the Empire. He and his younger brother Norman were among the first class of cadets to enter the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1911. Intelligent, calm, and somewhat reticent, “Silent Cyril” was also an outstanding sportsman. Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Rowell – “dear old Syd” – described his Duntroon classmate as “one of the greatest players of ball games I have ever known.” Graduating in 1914, Clowes served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the artillery during the Great War. He went ashore at Anzac in the morning on 25 April 1915, and served as an artillery observation officer directing naval gunfire during the Gallipoli campaign. On the Western Front, he was awarded a Military Cross for his work as a trench mortar officer in 1916 and then a Distinguished Service Order in 1918 for skilfully deploying the 2nd Division’s artillery during the battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Clowes remained in the army during the interwar period, holding various staff, training and command positions, while his brother Norman, meanwhile, transferred to the British army after the war where he a long and distinguished career.
In April 1940, Cyril Clowes was seconded to the Second AIF as a brigadier to command the I Australian Corps’s artillery. His ability to get a clear grasp of a situation and act accordingly was demonstrated during a crucial moment in the disastrous Greek campaign in April 1941. The Australian commander, General Sir Thomas Blamey, sent Clowes to Pinios (or Tempe) Gorge in northern Greece, where the rapidly advancing Germans were opposed only by a New Zealand infantry battalion and threatened to outflank the retreating Commonwealth column (reported in Wartime no. 54). With orders from Blamey to “take any action [you] consider necessary” to stabilise the deteriorating situation, Clowes told the New Zealand commander his men had to remain fast “even if it meant extinction” so as to delay the enemy’s penetration of the gorge. Taking charge of the threatened flank, Clowes helped rally the defenders, who were soon reinforced, and bought precious time for the withdrawal of main force.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of Pacific War in December 1941, Clowes was one of several senior officers immediately recalled from the Middle East to Australia; he was promoted to major general in command of a Militia infantry division. After the Japanese invaded Papua in July 1942, landing at Buna and Gona, Clowes was sent to Port Moresby to take over the force at Milne Bay. On the day he arrived in Milne Bay, 13 August, his friend Rowell took over New Guinea Force (NGF) at Port Moresby. In the weeks to come, Rowell would become one of Clowes’s staunchest allies. Clowes assumed command of Milne Force on 22 August. The Militia’s 7th Brigade was deployed along the bay’s northern shore, with a battalion defending the western shore. The AIF’s battle hardened 18th Brigade, veterans of the Middle East who had only recently arrived in Milne Bay, were held in reserve.
An RAAF Kittyhawk fighter-bomber lands at No. 3 Strip near Gili Gili, September 1942. The RAAF's contribution to the battle was decisive.
While Milne Bay was no tropical paradise, the American General Douglas MacArthur had quickly realised its strategic potential. An Allied airbase at Milne Bay would protect Port Moresby’s eastern flank against a Japanese naval attack. It would open also the way forward to move troops by sea along Papua’s coast to Buna, and then New Guinea, without having to cross the Kokoda Trail and the imposing Owen Stanley Range. Bombers from Milne Bay could also fly north to attack the Japanese base at Rabaul without having to make the dangerous climb over the mountains. Japanese commanders in Rabaul had similarly realised Milne Bay’s significance. They decided the area would make a good jumping off point for their navy for an attack on Port Moresby in conjunction with the army’s push across the mountains. As the air strips had only just become operational, the Japanese thought Milne Bay’s garrison would be small. In reality, there were nearly 9,000 Australians and Americans, including 4,500 infantrymen, as well as an artillery battery from the 2/5th Field Regiment, anti-aircraft batteries plus a flight of Hudson light bombers from No. 6 Squadron, RAAF, and Nos. 75 and 76 Squadrons, RAAF, flying Kittyhawk fighter-bombers.
Late on the night of 25 August, a Japanese amphibious force based around the Kure 5th Special Naval Landing Party (SNLP) from Rabaul, with some 2,000 troops and two light tanks, landed between Waga Waga and Wandala on the bay’s north coast, about 11 kilometres east of Rabi. The Japanese had intended to land at Rabi, near No. 3 Strip and Gili Gili, and quickly clashed with Australian militiamen during the night. The Japanese amphibious force should have also been strengthened with 350 men from the Sasebo 5th SNLP from Buna, but their barges had been destroyed on route by No. 75 Squadron a day earlier, stranding the Japanese on Goodenough Island. The RAAF similarly attacked and destroyed the Japanese barges and stores at Waga Waga and Wandala during the morning of the 26th, stranding the enemy force. This set the pattern for much of the battle. During the day, low-flying Kittyhawks bombed and strafed the Japanese positions, suppressing any movement. One observer insisted that under the Kittyhawks’ guns, “palm fronds, bullets and dead Japanese snipers were pouring down with the rain”. The air force was one of Clowes’s key assets during the battle, and he praised the pilots and ground crew afterwards for carrying out their work in a “magnificent manner”.
Milne Bay was known for its mud and malaria. The 61st Battalion were the first Australian soldiers to fight the Japanese at Milne Bay during the night 25-26 August 1942. AWM 013339
At night, however, the Japanese attacked, wading through the swamp to outflank Australian positions, while the light tanks, emerging from the darkness and rain, broke through the infantry. Japanese warships entered the bay on successive nights, when the air force’s Kittyhawks could not fly, shelling defences and landing reinforcements. Clowes was very much aware that the Japanese could land another force on the bay’s southern or western coastline. In the constant rain and tracks reduced to mud, he could not deploy troops quickly by vehicle – nor did he have enough barges or other vessels to move them by sea. He was also hampered by poor communications and an uncertainty as to the actual strength and intentions of the Japanese: Clowes was fighting blind. Writing to Rowell on 30 August, Clowes commented that he had “never quite realised how dense the fog of war could be!” This was a telling admission from an experience soldier. The general feeling, he later commented, “was one of impotence – that we could do but little to prevent the Jap coming and going at will, as he did, almost.” Conscious his flanks were not secure, Clowes did not immediately commit to the battle the AIF battalions that he had held in reserve. This decision led to his being unfairly criticised, by both MacArthur and Blamey, for being hesitant.
Major General George Vasey, the deputy chief of the General Staff, described the atmosphere at MacArthur’s General Headquarters (GHQ) as being “like a bloody barometer in a cyclone – up and down every two minutes.” Writing privately to Rowell on 28 August, Vasey warned that as this was their first battle since their defeat in the Philippines, GHQ was “nervous and dwelling” on messages from the front. “I feel”, he continued, “that a wrong impression of our troops has already been created in the minds of the great.” Rowell, who was responsible not only for Milne Bay but the worsening campaign on the Kokoda Trail and the small war being waged around Wau in New Guinea, replied to Vasey two days later. As NGF’s commander, Rowell said he had ordered Clowes to “put everything in”; but even then, Rowell doubted if it was possible for anything but small forces to be deployed. “I wish Chamberlain & Co. [MacArthur’s senior staff officers] could visit the jungle and see what conditions are, instead of sitting back and criticising.” But the criticisms continued. On 1 September, Blamey commented to Rowell that “by not acting with greater speed”, Clowes was “liable to have missed the opportunity of dealing completely with the enemy.” Rowell supported Clowes, but this did not stop Clowes from being left “cold” by Blamey’s comments. “Great speed” was just not possible in the conditions and with the resources available, Clowes protested.
One of several Japanese barges damaged, and some of the stores destroyed, by the air force during the first day of battle. AWM 026620
By now, however, the battle had already reached its climax. During the night of 30–31 August, the Japanese made a determined attack on No. 3 Strip, the most eastern airstrip, and were beaten back with heavy casualties. Thereafter the Japanese were in full retreat. The fighting to clear the northern shore was nonetheless still fierce. On 4 September, the 2/9th Battalion’s Corporal John French was leading a section that came under heavy fire from three Japanese machine-gun posts. Ordering his men to take cover, French silenced the first two posts with grenades and then rushed the third, firing his Thompson sub-machine gun from the hip – hit, French kept going. When the firing ceased, his section moved forward and found the machine-gunners dead, with French’s body lying on the lip of the third pit. French was posthumously award the Victoria Cross.
With the battle lost, the surviving Japanese – many of them ill, wounded, and all hungry – were evacuated between 4 and 7 September. Of the 2,800 Japanese who landed at Milne Bay, only 1,300 escaped. An estimated 750 were killed during the battle, while most of the others died trying to make their way overland to Buna. The far lower number of Allied casualties included 161 Australians killed or missing, and an American. This figure includes 36 Australians captured in the battle and executed by the Japanese. In addition, 59 Papuans were killed, including a number of murdered women. Many of those killed were bayoneted to death and some had been badly mutilated.
Cyril [left] with his brother Norman Clowes [right] during the Great War. AWM P06234.002
The victory at Milne Bay was celebrated in Australian newspapers as early as 1 September, with MacArthur announcing that Australian combat troops were clearing the bay “ably commanded by Maj–Gen Clowes”. Blamey publicly described Clowes as one of Australia’s youngest and most brilliant leaders. The Australian Women’s Weekly even ran a full-page story on the Clowes family. In May 1943, Clowes was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his success.
The battle of Milne Bay was the pinnacle of Clowes’s career; it also marked the beginning of its decline. In late September 1942, Blamey controversially dismissed Rowell (see Wartime no. 18), and appointed another officer over Clowes to command New Guinea Force. With Rowell crashing from Blamey’s favour, it seems Blamey doubted Clowes’s loyalty. As historian David Horner has pointed out, as Rowell and Clowes had been great friends for over 30 years, in Blamey’s mind they were tarred with the same brush. Blamey also rightly judged that MacArthur doubted Clowes, who was now out in the cold. It seems too that some of the energy and vigour that had carried him through the first war had left Clowes by the second, and unable to connect with the ordinary soldier. He spent much of the rest of 1942 either on leave or ill with malaria. On 22 November his youngest half-brother, Captain Trevor Clowes, was killed in the fighting at Gona. Two weeks later, Milne Force was re-designated the 11th Division. During 1943, the war moved on into New Guinea but Clowes was left languishing behind in Milne Bay. In October he returned to Australia to command the Victorian Lines of Communication Area for the rest of the war. It was an anticlimax for a successful general who had been one of the army’s rising stars. Clowes retired from the army in 1949, having reached the rank of lieutenant general, and died in 1968.
While Clowes’s personal laurels were meagre, Milne Bay was a significant victory for Australia and the Allies; it was the first decisive defeat of the Japanese on land during the war. The 7th Brigade’s commander, Brigadier John Field, summed up the sentiments of many when he commented, “Our troops have proved the Jap is not a superman.”
Dr Karl James is a Senior Historian in the Australian War Memorial’s Military History Section.