Lewis Guns at Kokoda
A good book to read The Knights of Kokoda by Geoffrey Scott. In the chapter titled Militia in the Jungle, an account of two WW1 vintage Lewis Guns used by the 39 th in the defence of Kokoda either side of the Track near Gorari is given. The museum at Kokoda, has among the relics freely sitting on the wooden shelves at the rear of the building, two barrels from what looks to be WW1 Lewis Guns .
There is no mistaking the air vents running down the length of the barrel underneath the housing. Shown above and below are the two barrels located at Kokoda, one with the housing still intact and the other without.
On page 26 of Geoffrey Scott's The Knights of Kokoda it reads;
"Owen worked feverishly to prepare an ambush, dispersing his men along the hillside on both sides of the trail ordering them to dig in and site their two World War 1 vintage Lewis guns"
Again on page 27 there is mention to the Lewis guns .
"With their rifles, few pistols and two old Lewis guns-one of which had only one drum of ammunition-they could not hope to match the enemy's fire- power."
Indeed the 39 th were out numbered and outgunned against a formidable enemy. I can not find any reference to the Lewis guns after the contacts at and near the Kokoda airstrip, with this in mind it is just possible that the two Lewis gun barrels that lay unlabelled in the Kokoda Museum belonged to the 39th.
1939-Militia Troops Training with a WW1 Lewis gun .
The Lewis Gun , a light machine gun, was developed in the United States in 1911. At 12 kg it was far lighter than the Vickers Machine-Gun and in 1915 the British Army decided to purchase the gun for use on the Western Front.
Another advantage of the Lewis is that six of these guns could be made in the time taken to produce one Vickers gun. Although too heavy for efficient portable use, it became the standard support weapon for the British infantry during the First World War. It used either a 47 or a 97 round cylindrical magazine note the vents at the rear of the barrel just below the drum magazine.
The Knights of Kokoda was first published in paperback 1963 by Horwitz Publications Inc. Pty Ltd and was written by Geoffrey Scott. Now out of print and hard to get, I believe it is one of the best books ever written on Kokoda. My fellow historian and Kokoda guide Soc Kienzle who spent many hours with his father Bert walking over the Track and playing near Kokoda station. Recalls how he found these two Lewis Guns when he was a boy. I have no doubt that these belonged to the 39th Battalion.
The Evelyn Owen Sub-Machine Gun
In WWII, Australian soldiers found themselves fighting a different kind of war against the Japanese in the Jungles of New Guinea. The main weapon of the Australian Infanteer was the .303 Mk III* with each section commander carrying a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun. While the .303 was the tried and tested workhorse of the Australian Army, it was very hard to bring to bear in close quarters combat. The Thompson Sub-Machine Gun was a very effective close quarters weapon but did not like the jungle environment and was prone to stoppages and required constant cleaning, on top of this it was expensive.
Lee-Enfield .303 Mk III* Thompson as packaged by the manufacturer
Evelyn Ernest Owen was born on the 15th of May 1915 in Wollongong NSW. Fascinated with all things mechanical Evelyn or ‘Evo' as he was known to his friends had a complete understanding of the combustion engine by the age of eight. Like most young boys he was interested in firearms, often he would be found tinkering with old broken shotguns and rifles turning out new parts to replace the broken ones. Once at the age of twelve he acquired an ancient hammerless shotgun. Turning a single piece of metal he made a new hammer and soon had the gun back to working order. Needless to say his curiosity would on occasion lead to injury. Many a time he find himself needing to be patched up by his mother. Along with firearms he also experimented with making homemade bombs, this too resulted in more scars.
Evelyn Owen with his famous Owen Gun
As Evelyn grew older he concentrated more on the theory side of weapons and soon gained a tremendous knowledge of ballistics. While both his parents tried to divert his attentions to other things, Evelyn continued with his experiments. Moving on from single shot weapons he became interested in machine guns and soon he mastered draughtsmanship, now he could draw blueprints and finally experiment with his ideas on paper. In his late teens he designed and manufactured several machineguns but they never quite performed to the level Evelyn wanted. He was looking for a weapon that had a high rate of fire, was simple to make, did not jam and was accurate. In 1938, after many attempts and through sheer perseverance he finally produced his ultimate weapon The Owen Gun. With every inch of steel cut and turned Evelyn completely built his gun from the ground up. Firing accurately and without stoppages the simple construction of barrel, bolt, spring, pistol grip, one bent piece of bent steel for a stock and operated by the recoil of each shot, the Owen Gun was ready to be shown to the Australian Army.
One day in July Evelyn went into Sydney's Victoria Barracks, when asked by the officer "what have you in the bag son" Evelyn replied "It's a Tommy-Gun" The officer quickly snapping back "That is an American gangsters gun; the army has no use for those". Despite being shot down in flames by the officer Evelyn continued with his design.
In May 1940 Evelyn followed his brothers David, Julian and Peter into the AIF. He packed his invention into grease and put it into an old sugar bag and left it in a garage occupied by a tenant in a house owned by his father. Little did Evelyn know that tenant happened to be Vincent A. Wardell, the General-Manager of Lysaght's Port Kembla now called Blue Scope Steel.
The Owen Sub-Machine Gun, Calibre 9mm, Length 813mm, Barrel Length 250mm, Weight Loaded 4.815kg, Rate of Fire 700 rpm, Muzzle Velocity 420mps
Sometime while Evelyn was off doing his training Mr Wardell found the bag containing the Owen Gun, taking the weapon out of the bag and firing the action Wardell knew a finely crafted piece of machinery when he saw one. With a simple operation and the bolt being the only working part Wardell knew he was on to something. After speaking with Evelyn's father, Mr Wardell sent a telegram to the Director General of Munitions a one Mr Essington Lewis. The telegram stated that he had found a marvellous firearm that was simple in construction and was worth taking a look at. Essington Lewis contacted the minister for Army, telling him that a young Wollongong man had invented a weapon that would be very useful to the war effort.
Things started to happen quite quickly, in 1941 Evelyn was told he was no longer need for army service and he must attend a meeting at the war office. Later in June of '41 he was discharged from the AIF and went to work in the Lysaght's factory. Lysaght's was given a contract to produce 100 Owen Guns and on the 30th of September 1941 Evelyn's Owen Gun went was tested at Long Bay Rifle Range against the best sub-machine guns of the day. Competing against a Thompson, Sten and even a German Bergmann the Owen Gun was found to be more accurate but the real test was to come. All the weapons were placed into water, sand and mud, the Owen Gun was the only one to keep firing while the others all stopped. The audience were left spellbound, now Evelyn Owen would finally get the recognition for his invention. Under Evelyn's watchful eye the Lysaght's factory went on to produce 45,477 guns for the Australian Army at a cost of 12 pounds ($24). Colonel Latchford along with some other army officers had been instrumental in procuring the contract for producing the weapons.
Owen Gun being used by Australian Commandos in WWII
The Owen Gun was a purpose built jungle fighting arm, perfect for close quarters combat in the tropical environment. The weapon was also used in Korea, Malayan Emergency and Vietnam.
The Owen Gun in use in Vietnam, circa 1966
Owen did not worry about obtaining patents for his invention in 1942, it was not until after the war that he finally received 10 000 pounds in royalties. With these proceeds he bought a small sawmill at Tongarra, just outside of Wollongong. Unfortunately the mill returned little profit. Evelyn never married and became a heavy drinker. On the 1st of April 1949 he died at Wollongong hospital of a ruptured gastric ulcer. He was only 34.
In the Wollongong City Council Building located in Burelli St, Wollongong there is a bronze portrait made by his sister Eleanor Owen O'Donnell. This project was put together by family members and workers that produced the Owen Gun. The project was also supported by BHP Sheet and Coil Products, formally known as John Lysaght Ltd.
Information kindly supplied by David Howell Kokoda Historical
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