The Australian forces were involved in many actions in the Second World War, starting off in North Africa and when Japan entered the War seeing action in Malaya. But of all the actions for which the Australian forces are known, arguably it is the fighting on the Kokoda Track, a 96 kilometre single file path over the centre of the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea which is most famous, at least in Australia.
It was a spirited defence of the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea, and against the threat of invasion of Australia itself. More than 600 Australians were killed and some 1680 wounded during perhaps the most significant battle fought by Australians in World War II.
The Japanese Invasion forces arrive
A Japanese invasion force landed on the north coast of PNG in July 1942 with the intention to cross to the south and to the capital Port Moresby using the Kokoda, which was the main military. Intense fighting in appalling conditions followed for the next four months. Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
Japanese outnumbered the defenders
However the initial defence by the outnumbered Australian troops and Papuan Infantry Battalionnt troops was pushed back to Isurava. Reinforcements were sent from the PNG capital, including veterans of the campaign in the Middle East against the Germans and Italians.
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.
The terrain between Owers Corner and Kokoda is backbreaking terrain of upto 305 metres, and the Australian reinforcements were able to push back furious Japanese attacks. During the action Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th Battalion was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for storming Japanese positions with a bren gun.
Australian orderly withdrawal
The Australians began an orderly withdrawal down the track, fighting actions at Eora Creek, Templeton’s Crossing, Efogi, Mission Ridge and Ioribaiwa. Alied aircraft made supply fights and also bombing runs against the Japanese.
Battle at Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
As the action on the Kokoda track was going slowly the Japanese tried a flanking move and sent and invasion force to Milne Bay on the eastern tip of PNG backed by naval ships. Eventually they landed 2,700 troops. Here the allies were constructing three airfields for action against Japanese forces in the Solomon Sea and especially Rabaul
However the Japanese had underestimated the allied forces working on the airfields, roads and compounds, which totaled about 9,500, including American Seebees ( military construction engineers), 7,500 Australian troops including artillery, and when the airfields were ready the Royal Australian Air force with Kittyhawk fighters and Hudson bombers.
The Japanese began their night assault on August 26th against airfield No.3. Even against vigorous charges by the Japanese supported by naval gunfire, the Australians supported by the RAAF held, rallied and pushed the Japanese back, leading to the Japanese evacuation by sea on 3rd to 6th September. This was the first allied ground victory against the Japanese in the war. The Japanese lost 600 killed, but allied casualties were high, 322 dead and 200 wounded . However the battle proved that the Japanese were not invincible.
Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels
This was the time the Fuzzy Wuzzy angels (the local Papuan carriers) carried supplies forward and the many wounded back to allied lines, as the Australians made another strategic retreat from Kokoda back to Imita ridge between August 26th and September 25th.
The Japanese reach their furthest point
By now the Japanese could see the lights of Port Moresby, but they were exhausted, sick, and with little in the way of supplies, and on September 25th the Japanese abandoned their attempt to reach Port Moresbey, having come face to face with fresh, dug in troops at Imita ridge. When the Australians advanced on September 28th, they found the Japanese had disappeared.
The Japanese are stopped
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.
However they found many Japanese as they advanced once more up the track for six hard weeks, but more horrifying was that they found evidence of cannibalism committed on Australian and Papuan prisoners and dead.
End of the battle, but not the fighting.
There was heavy fighting in some locations of the Japanese retreat, including Templeton’s Crossing, and on November 2nd Kokoda was retaken. More tough fighting continued with the Australians now the victims of few supplies, but by November 18th the Kumusi River was reached. The Japanese had been pushed back to the north coast. The battle for the track was over, but it was not the end of the PNG campaign.