The RAAF at Milne Bay
Australian forces turned back a Japanese invasion of Papua in 1942.
During landing operations in the southwest corner of Goodenough Island on the 25th at 1040 we were raided by 10 enemy fighters for a period of 45 minutes, during which time all landing craft were set on fire and destroyed. A great deal of weapons, w/t equipment, food supplies etc which were in the boats were lost and 8 persons killed … and five seriously wounded. All medical supplies have been burnt. (Japanese document captured at Keppel Point. AWM52 8/2/7/8 folio 61)
Led by Flight Lieutenant John Piper, nine P40 Kittyhawks from 75 Squadron RAAF had taken off from Gurney field at Milne Bay early in the morning of 25 August 1942, hoping to catch seven barges seen the previous day about 100 miles away. Catch them they did. The barges were drawn up bow-first at Cape Watts, on the south-east coast of Goodenough Island. About 50 feet long and 10 wide, they were full of equipment, and each contained five or six personnel wearing dark green uniforms. The barges were brown, with patchy camouflage on their upper surfaces that appeared to the circling Australian pilots to have been applied in a hurry. The “Kittys” approached from the south between two hills, before hurtling down from 10,000 feet to 10 feet, firing more than 10,000 rounds. The first formation of six aircraft made about six runs and observed at least five of the barges to be burning and sinking.
The unlucky barges and troops at Goodenough Island had been tasked with supporting a much larger invasion force of Japanese Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) marines and support personnel that had left the massive Japanese naval base at Rabaul a few days earlier. Supported by ships from the 18th Naval Cruiser Squadron, the mission’s aim was simple – to seize the newly established Allied airfield at Milne Bay on the far eastern tip of Papua. Order No 1 is in the Memorial’s archive; drawn up by the commander of the Milne Bay expeditionary force, Hayashi Shōjirō, it stated that:
The force will take possession of Milne Bay aerodrome by a sudden attack and quickly set up a base. At the dead of night quickly complete the landing in the enemy area and strike the white soldiers without remorse. Unitedly smash to pieces the enemy lines and take the aerodrome by storm.
The location was paramount. For the Allies, who were now frantically hacking down coconut trees and clearing swamps to construct a further two airstrips, Milne Bay represented a means of attacking the Solomons and New Britain, and giving advance fighter protection for US medium and heavy bombers taking off from Port Moresby. But the same geographic and strategic advantages were greedily eyed by the Japanese. Capturing Milne Bay would leave Port Moresby exposed, threaten northern Australia, sever supply lines to the mainland, and trap Australian soldiers fighting on the Kokoda Track.
There can have been few Australians at the time who did not believe that the Japanese were capable of seizing Moresby. By mid-1942 they had swept all before them on their way through south-east Asia. The Australians were fighting Japanese forces deep in the jungle along the Kokoda Track, and by mid-August had been pushed back to Isurava. To this point, the Japanese advance seemed unstoppable. The recently fought battle of the Coral Sea had seen Japan lose much-needed ships and aircraft, but was widely heralded in Japan as a victory.
75 Squadron had been in almost constant action flying from Port Moresby since March, and after the loss of its commanding officer, John Jackson, was now commanded by his brother Les. Together with 76 Squadron it had relocated to the mosquitoes and mud of Milne Bay in late July, following closely behind the deployment of an RAAF wireless station and No. 37 Radar Unit. While 76 Squadron pilots lacked experience fighting the Japanese, many of its members were former Spitfire pilots, with combat skills learned in Europe. The Squadron was ably led by Pete Truscott, with “Bluey” Truscott as his second in command. Also based at Gurney field were three RAAF Hudson reconnaissance aircraft from 32 Squadron, and two American units: the 8th Fighter Control Squadron (which was tasked with establishing afighter sector control, in advance of the planned arrival of US fighter aircraft) and the US 43rd Engineers, who had constructed the field. An air-raid by the Japanese on 4 August proved that the base was secret no more, and further raids through the course of the month indicated that an attack was imminent.
On the same day as the strike at Goodenough Island, an aircraft from the American 435th Squadron spotted a force of seven Japanese ships steaming towards Milne Bay. The threat it posed was clear. Nine Flying Fortresses from the US 19th Bomb Group based at Mareeba in Queensland flew to attack the convoy, but failed to find it in poor weather. However, the weather cleared enough later that day for aircraft from 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF to launch repeated strafing and bombing runs on the ships, accompanied by attacks from Hudsons from 6 Squadron and 32 Squadron. A minesweeper was hit, and thought to have been immobilised, but failing light and low cloud cover shielded the invasion fleet from further attack.
A diary later captured at Milne Bay hints at the effectiveness of the RAAF attacks, noting that the protecting vessel Tatsuta received a direct hit on the second gun turret during one of the raids on 25 August and that “the transport ship Kinryu Maru was hit by three bombs, hitting the forward NCOs’ mess rooms causing many casualties amongst the crew and the landing unit.” (AWM 54 423/4/28 part 2 folio 76)
Later that night the Japanese naval force entered Milne Bay, with the warships providing cover for a landing by the SNLF. The capture of the airstrip was considered a foregone conclusion. It would be no time before Zeros, Vals and Bettys would be taking off to support the thrust towards Port Moresby. Confidence in the ability of the Empire’s troops to sweep all before them was supreme – so much so that the landing barges carried not just assault troops, but spare belly tanks for the aircraft, as well as a petrol tanker and meteorological troops.
Landing on the eastern shoreline of Milne Bay, the SNLF quickly established a beachhead, and started to unload men and equipment.
But poor reconnaissance, primitive maps, and rushed planning were now combining to strike the Japanese a fatal blow. Their landfall was far from their planned beachhead, and they were now forced to slog miles through boggy and insect-plagued jungle to capture the airstrip. Their landings had been uncontested, but it took little time for advance units of Australian troops to make contact with the Japanese, and pass the word back. As soon as daylight allowed on the morning of 26 August, the RAAF struck back. One and a half miles east of KB, a small mission settlement, the pilots spotted 12 to 14 invasion barges on the shoreline. Five attacks were launched over the course of the day, with each aircraft firing its full load of 1,500 rounds, and leaving the barges twisted and sinking, and the fuel and supplies near the shoreline burning.
For the next two weeks, the two squadrons flew constant reconnaissance flights, interceptions and devastating ground attacks at treetop height. On 28 August alone there were nine strafing attacks in the vicinity of KB mission, involving 31 sorties.
Keeping the aircraft armed, fuelled and repaired in almost constant rain and surrounded by mud, presented an almost insurmountable obstacle. Deep water and mud on the runway damaged flaps when landing, and mud hardened on the wings when the aircraft became airborne, slowing speed. The mud also found its way into the aircraft machine guns, and combined with corrosion to produce frequent stoppages. Ground crews worked incessantly to keep the aircraft flying and to patch damage. The airstrip was so close to the action, however, that its capture was a real threat, so on the night of 26 August the fighters were reluctantly withdrawn to Port Moresby.
Aware of the demoralising effect this would have on the defending troops, Squadron Leader “Bluey” Truscott, flying with 76 Squadron, nonetheless gave a commitment to keep all his aircraft in the air as much as possible all day, saying that he would rather lose all his aircraft in action than deprive the ground troops of air support.
On the night of 30 August the Japanese advance reached its highwater mark; with the support of two tanks, the SNLF marines made it to the edge of No. 3 airstrip, where a determined attack was thwarted with heavy loss of Japanese life. The Australians regained the initiative, forcing the Japanese back along the coast. With the fight now moving into the dense jungle, away from the shoreline, it was difficult for the pilots to see any effect from their strafing runs. But it was clear to the Australian troops on the ground that the presence of the aircraft was forcing the Japanese to seek shelter during the day and to move only by night. Captured diaries held at the Memorial, such as that written by 1st Class Stoker Shimokawa, No. 3 SLP No. 1 Company, 2nd Platoon, show that the attacks were shattering morale:
30 August. Enemy planes came and bombed us from daybreak. We hid in the jungle all day. Enemy planes attacked us in turns – about three aircraft at a time. They strafed us with machine gun fire 30/40 times. Evening spent in action. The day began to break – now it’ll be air raids. So that we could hide in the jungle if the enemy planes came, we went back to the place we had been.
Japanese aircraft were still a threat but were seen less and less overhead as they were drawn off to support the larger fight on the neighbouring island of Guadalcanal, where US troops and ships were starting to gain ascendancy. By the night of 6 September, recognising the futility of the Milne Bay adventure, most of the remaining Japanese forces were evacuated by sea.
For the first time, the Japanese had been pushed back on land and decisively beaten. Post-battle analysis pointed to a number of factors, including better Australian marksmanship and knowledge of the lie of the land. By treating the local inhabitants with respect, many of them were inducted as willing co-combatants and supplied valuable intelligence on Japanese troop movements.
But one aspect that almost certainly turned the tide of battle in the Allies’ favour was the overwhelming close ground support given to the infantry by the RAAF, and the boost to morale that it engendered. For the first time in the Pacific war, the Allies had established and held air superiority over contested ground.
About the author
Shane Casey is a Senior Curator in Military Heraldry & Technology at the Australian War Memorial.