Kokoda Historical Overview
More than 600 Australians were killed and some 1680 wounded during perhaps the most significant battle fought by Australians in World War II.
Forced to repel a Japanese invasion force, which landed at Gona on the north coast of Papua on 21 July 1942, the Australians fought in appalling conditions over the next four months. The Japanese objective was to capture Port Moresby, the main Australian base in New Guinea, by an overland strike across the Owen Stanley Range. The most direct way across these rugged mountains was by a jungle pathway known as the Kokoda Track.
During the next four months, until 16 November 1942, Australian soldiers fought the Japanese, first to keep them from reaching Port Moresby and then to push them back over the Owen Stanleys to their north coast strongholds at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
In late July 1942, as the Japanese advanced towards Kokoda village, they were engaged by forward elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australian 39th Infantry Battalion. Despite the Australians' stubborn resistance, Kokoda fell to the larger Japanese force and by 27 August the Australians and the few Papuan troops who had stayed with them had been forced back to Isurava. Reinforcements were sent from Port Moresby: first the 53rd Battalion, which protected a side-track behind Isurava and then the veteran 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions, which had previously served in the Middle East.
At Isurava, in the last days of August, the 39th and the 2/14th Battalions, with support further back from the 2/16th and 53rd Battalions, were able to temporarily hold the Japanese during an intense five-day action. Three days into the battle, on 29 August, in the face of yet another enemy assault, Private Bruce Kingsbury, 2/14th Battalion, was killed as he rushed forward with his Bren gun, driving back the enemy in a determined counter-attack. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first VC awarded during the New Guinea campaigns.
Throughout September, the Australian units withdrew down the Kokoda Track, being joined by the 2/27th Battalion. They made further stands against the Japanese at Eora Creek, Templeton's Crossing, Efogi, Mission Ridge and Ioribaiwa. Allied airmen dropped supplies and made repeated attacks on the enemy's supply lines. During those gruelling days, the Papuan men employed as carriers played a vital role in the battle. They carried supplies forward for the troops and then, as the number of troops who were wounded or fell sick increased, carried back to safety those who were unable to walk.
By 16 September, after more troops had come forward from Port Moresby and dug into a defensive position at Imita Ridge, the Japanese were exhausted. They had been forced to fight hard to cross the mountains and had run out of many supplies. Following setbacks on other battlefields against Australian and American forces, which robbed them of further reinforcements, the Japanese on the Kokoda Track were ordered to withdraw. As Australian patrols pushed forward of Imita Ridge on 28 September, they found that the enemy had slipped away.
During the next six weeks, the Japanese fell back over the mountains. They were pursued by troops of the 25th Brigade, comprising the 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions and the 16th Brigade, comprising the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions, along with the 3rd Battalion and men from medical and supply units. Significant actions were fought at Templeton's Crossing, where it took more than a week of hard and costly fighting for the 25th Brigade to push back the enemy, and at Eora Creek where the 16th Brigade also doggedly attacked enemy strongpoints to slowly make ground.
The Australians were plagued by supply shortages that increased the difficulties of jungle warfare. Finally, on 2 November, Kokoda was retaken. The Australians had one more tough battle to fight at Oivi-Gorari, where the Japanese were determined to make another stand, before they were able to finish the advance over the mountains. By 18 November the Australians had reached the Kumusi River. The battle for the Kokoda Track was over.
Battle of Isurava
The village of Isurava was the site of one of several desperate battles fought by Australian troops during their retreat along the Kokoda Track. Their position at Deniki becoming untenable, the 39th Battalion, then the only Australian unit confronting the Japanese on withdrawal to Isurava on the night of 14 August 1942. Poorly equipped, the battalion had to dig-in with bayonets, bully beef tins and helmets. The 39th was fortunate that the Japanese did not immediately follow up their success at Deniki and a lull in the fighting ensued for almost a fortnight, allowing reinforcements from the 21st Brigade to begin moving forward.
On 26 August the Japanese clashed with the 39th's forward outposts at Isurava heralding that their next attack was developing. The same day the first two companies of the 2/14th Battalion arrived to relieve the 39th's exhausted young soldiers, the average age of whom was 18. The next afternoon the 39th's left flank was heavily attacked and while the Japanese were able to penetrate one of the company positions, they were beaten off by two quick counter-attacks. Fighting swirled all around the forward arc of the position throughout 28 August as the Japanese sought a weakness in the Australian defences to exploit.
The rest of the 2/14th Battalion arrived this day and its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Albert Key assumed command of the area. Although the 39th now had the chance to withdraw for a well-earned rest, its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, aware of the onslaught the 2/14th would face, decided it would remain in place. The men of the 39th, however, were moved into positions to the rear to allow the 2/14th to occupy the most threatened parts of the positions.
The morning of 29 August brought ferocious attacks right around the forward arc of the position. The first company to give way was C Company of the 2/14th and the Japanese poured through the gap, threatening the whole position. A counter-attack met them head-on, Private Bruce Kingsbury was to the fore, rushing forward and sweeping the Japanese with his Bren gun. A sniper's bullet killed Kingsbury, who was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions but the counter-attack had momentarily restored the situation. The Japanese continued to press home their attack throughout the afternoon. C Company was forced to give ground and D Company, astride the trail, broke around 3pm, having repulsed 11 previous attacks on its positions. As night closed in the position at Isurava was in danger of being overwhelmed and a withdrawal of just over a kilometre to positions around the Isurava Guest House was conducted.
The Japanese followed close on the heels of the Australians and 30 August brought no respite. With some of the companies under his command now struggling to muster a full platoon, Key lacked the troops to cover the high ground to his left, a weakness the Japanese quickly exploited. They heavily attacked the Australians' right rear threatening to cut the track behind them. A further withdrawal was ordered at 3pm but many had to fight their way out, including Key's command group. When the 2/14th mustered at Alola the next morning 172 personnel were missing in addition to those known to be dead and wounded.
At Isurava the Australians had been overwhelmed by superior numbers which, poorly equipped and supported, they could never match. Although the 2/14th Battalion was experienced and relatively fresh, its potential to wrest the initiative from the Japanese was undermined by the torturous march along the Kokoda Trail which meant that it could only be employed in the piecemeal fashion in which it arrived at Isurava. The delay imposed there, however, did allow time for the other battalions of the 21st Brigade to make their way forward.
Eora Creek runs north, roughly parallel to the Kokoda Track, from the central ridge of the Owen Stanley Mountains, near Myola, to join the Mabare River east of Kokoda. The trail crosses the creek at two points: at Templeton's Crossing and just north of the village of Eora Creek. In the vicinity of Eora Creek village the creek runs through a deep gorge - terrain described by the Official Historian as offering the "most favourable conditions for defence" along the whole length of the trail.
Eora Creek village was the site of a rearguard position between 31 August and 1 September during the retreat of Australian forces along the Kokoda Trail, occupied in succession by the 39th, 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions.
During the Australian advance back along the track, Eora Creek was the scene of bitter fighting when the 16th Brigade sought to overcome a strong Japanese defensive position established on heights that dominated the village and creek crossing. The 2/1st Battalion first contacted the Japanese forward of the Eora Creek village on 21 October but the main engagement did not begin until the leading troops of the battalion entered it the next morning.
Heavy Japanese fire stalled the Australian advance behind the bare ridge on which the village stood and it was not until the small hours of 23 October, under the cover of darkness, that the 2/1st Battalion was able to cross the creek. In succeeding days, up-hill frontal attacks made little progress against the Japanese positions rapidly sapping the 2/1st Battalion's strength. Meanwhile, the 2/3rd Battalion had been seeking a way around the Japanese flanks. This move proved decisive. The battalion closed on the western flank of the Japanese position on 27 October and the next afternoon launched an attack downhill into it. The surviving defenders fled into the jungle. Ninety-nine Australians were killed in the battle of Eora Creek and another 192 were wounded. Pursuit of the retreating Japanese began on 29 October.
Templeton's Crossing was named by Captain Bert Kienzle in remembrance of Captain Sam Templeton of the 39th Battalion, who was killed near Oivi on 26 July 1942. During their withdrawal along the trail, the Japanese conducted a determined defence of the Templeton's Crossing area. The 2/33rd Battalion first made contact with these positions forward of Templeton's Crossing about midday on 12 October 1942. For the next two and a half days the battalion sought to attack and then outflank the Japanese positions, but made no progress. The 2/25th Battalion, advancing on the Templeton's Crossing area along a subsidiary track, had also encountered Japanese positions and had likewise been unable to force its way through. On the morning of 15 October the 3rd Battalion moved in a wide arc around the right flank of the 2/33rd with the aim of attacking the Japanese from their flank, but their positions were found abandoned. The same day, the 2/25th was also able to break through the enemy force holding them. The three Australian battalions converged on Templeton's Crossing, but the Japanese had withdrawn.
The next day, seeking to consolidate their hold on Templeton's Crossing, the three Australian battalion commanders decided the 3rd would press on several hundred metres up the track. In doing so, it encountered another Japanese rearguard position. Attacks on 17 October captured some of the position, but the Australians were harried by counter-attacks throughout the night and the next day. Further offensive action by the Australians was hampered by two companies of the 3rd Battalion becoming lost in the jungle, and a break down in communication between the 3rd and the 2/25th. A stalemate ensued during which the 16th Brigade began to relieve the tired 25th.
The trail above Templeton's Crossing was finally cleared by an attack mounted by the 2/2nd Battalion on 20 October. The 2/2nd concentrated its efforts on the right flank of the Australian positions (the Japanese left flank), with two companies attacking at right angles to the trail, and another two at roughly 45 degrees. Like much of the fighting along the Kokoda Trail, it was an affair of small groups of Australians tackling Japanese machine-guns with small arms and grenades. By nightfall, however, the four companies occupied two positions astride the trail, with the Japanese sandwiched between them. It was planned to renew the attack on the morning of 21 October with the assistance of a company of the 2/1st Battalion, but patrols at first light discovered the Japanese had escaped through the jungle and fallen back on Eora Creek.
Battle of Brigade Hill
Maroubra Force withdrew to the next defensible strong point on the Track, a feature known as Mission Ridge. Following the containment of the Japanese at Milne Bay, Allen finally released the 2/27th Infantry Battalion from the divisional reserve at Port Moresby. After advancing along the Track from Port Moresby, the 2/27th Infantry Battalion finally joined Maroubra Force at Mission Ridge and Brigadier Potts was finally able to commit his entire brigade to the battle.
Taking up positions on a hilltop straddling the Track, which later became known as "Brigade Hill", Maroubra Force awaited the Japanese advance. The usual Japanese frontal attacks began soon after upon the Australian leading elements. However, the Japanese launched a strong flank attack, aimed at cutting off the lead elements from the rest of Maroubra Force. The flank attack cut Maroubra Force in two, separating the brigade headquarters staff from the three battalions. With Brigade HQ about to be overrun, Brigadier Potts and the rear elements of Maroubra Force were forced to retreat back along the Track to the village of Menari .
When it became clear that they were in danger of being cut-off and destroyed, the remaining soldiers of all three Australian battalions immediately left the Track and "went bush" via an alternate track to the village of Menari . The 2/14th and 2/16th Infantry Battalions managed to re-unite with Brigadier Potts and 21st Brigade headquarters at Menari but the 2/27th Battalion was unable to reach Menari before the rest of the brigade was again forced to retreat by the advancing Japanese.
The 2/27th, along with wounded from the other battalions, were forced to follow paths parallel to the main Track, eventually making their way back to Ioribaiwa, and thence to Imita Ridge. Elements of the 2/14th and 2/16th Infantry Battalions accompanying Potts later managed to regroup for the defence of Imita Ridge, but the 2/27th only managed to regroup much later, after the Japanese retreat began. The result of this action was the shattering of Maroubra Force.
The defeat of the 21st Brigade at Brigade Hill finally ended Maroubra Force's defence of the Kokoda Track as a cohesive unit and was a decisive victory for the Japanese. The defeat was one of many factors leading later to the "rabbit that run" incident at base camp at Koitaki.
On 8 September, Rowell informed Blamey that he had decided to relieve Potts. Rowell ordered Potts to immediately report to Port Moresby "for consultations", replacing him as Maroubra Force commander with Brigadier Selwyn Porter on 10 September.
The series of defeats had a depressing effect back in Australia. On 30 August , MacArthur radioed Washington that unless action was taken, New Guinea Force would be overwhelmed. General George Vasey wrote that "GHQ is like a bloody barometer in a cyclone, up and down every two minutes". MacArthur informed General George Marshall that "the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking." He wanted Blamey to go up to New Guinea and "energise" the situation.
Prime Minister John Curtin ordered Blamey up to Port Moresby to take personal command of New Guinea Force, which he did on 23 September. Rowell remained in command of I Corps, but saw this as a suppression. Blamey soon concluded that he could not work with Rowell and relieved him of his command on 28 September replacing him with Lieutenant General Edmund Herring.
Information kindly supplied by Mr David Howell Kokoda Historical
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