75th Anniversary of the Battle of Wau

At the beginning of World War II, the town of Wau, situated in the upper reaches of the Buolo Valley in New Guinea, was a small mining settlement. Gold prospectors had arrived at the coast at Salamaua and struggled inland along the notorious Black Cat Track. The miners had partially cleared the area and built houses, workshops and also established a water supply and electricity grid. They constructed an aerodrome – a grass strip with a 10 per cent slope and a mountain at one end of the runway. Aircraft could only approach from the north east, landing uphill and taking off downhill. Pilots had to manoeuvre under clouds ‘dodging a peak here and a cloud there’, endure frequent poor weather conditions, while also landing at high speeds.

These treacherous conditions were to play a vital role in the ensuing Battle of Wau.

In April 1942 a decision was made by the Australian Army High Command to form a guerrilla unit known as Kanga Force as a means of reinforcing the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles – a total of 400 men at most and often less as the effects of malaria, malnutrition and wounds took its toll.  By June Kanga Force was mainly concentrated at Wau and despite their numbers, this small army proved to be a ‘threatening presence, a military asset and a thorn in the enemy’s side’.

The failure of the Japanese to capture Port Moresby during the Kokoda Campaign during 1942, and the loss of their north Papuan beachhead garrisons at Buna, Gona and Sananda between November 1942 and January 1943, elevated the importance of their mainland bases at Lae and Salamaua.  The town of Wau stood strategically across a route from these Japanese bases to the Australian base at Port Moresby.

Reinforced with increased troops from Rabaul, a Japanese task force left Salamaua in January 1943 and began the arduous trek across the Owen Stanley Range via the Black Cat Track with the aim of attacking the Kanga Force based at Wau.

The momentum of the Japanese advance was checked along the way in a series of skirmishes with Victorian troops of the 17th Brigade. The fighting began on 28 January when the Japanese ran into a small Australian force under Captain W.H. Sherlock at Wandumi, three kilometres from Wau. Despite decoded communications having forewarned Australian commanders of the attack, the Japanese were able to bypass the outnumbered Australians and got to within a few metres of the airfield. Sherlock’s communications to Brigade conveyed the urgency of the battle on that day –

1445 hrs  “badly in need of water and men soon”

1455 hrs  “Cut off and look like being overrun.”

1510 hrs  “Things very hot, any help sent may be too late. 9 platoon overrun and countering now.”

The isolated troops were much depleted and in urgent need of back-up. Early on 29 January, when the weather finally improved, a dramatic airlift began, landing battle-ready troops almost directly into action and bringing much needed assistance to Wau. A total of fifty seven plane loads of reinforcements arrived, bringing most of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion and the remainder of the 2/5th.  By 30 January 1943, despite the slow and difficult process and a number of planes crashing in the attempt, Kanga Force had grown large enough to counterattack.

The Japanese tried to cut off the stream of Allied air transports by bombing the Wau airstrip but a decisive air battle fought on 6 February 1943 saw Allied pilots down 24 enemy aircraft. This ended all hopes of dislodging Kanga Force and the Japanese fell back towards Mubo. Kanga Force suffered 349 casualties at Wau and Australian troops counted 753 Japanese dead.

This defeat was the last attempt by the Japanese to advance towards Port Moresby, and ended their last significant offensive on New Guinea.