The Killing Grounds of Milne Bay

1943-04-16. New Guinea, Milne Bay. Aerial Photography of the coastal strip where the Milne Bay Battle was fought.

“Australian troops had, at Milne Bay, inflicted on the Japanese, their first undoubted defeat on land.”

“Some of us may forget that of all the Allies, it was the Australians who first broke the spell of Japanese invincibility.”

Field Marshal Sir William Slim

On the night of 25 August 1942 a force of 2,000 Japanese Marines landed in Milne Bay to capture the allied base comprising three airfields. The Japanese intelligence believed there would be no more than a few hundred troops defending the airfields, there were in fact close to 9,000 Allied troops.  These numbers included two Australian infantry brigades, the 7th and the 18th.  The Allies also had air support in 75 and 76 Squadrons based there.

The Japanese, supported by two light tanks, had some initial success and were able to advance steadily westward, the Allied 61st Battalion unable to hold them back.  On the night of 27 August the 2nd/10th Battalion was hurriedly sent forward to meet the Japanese invaders at KB Mission, arriving at last light and deploying around the mission’s coconut plantation; the coconuts would later become weapons for the troops taking shelter beneath them.

“The first thing I thought when I saw the mission was that it was a killing-ground, but whose killing-ground?

Captain Theo Schmedje 2/10th Battalion

The Commanding Officer, LTCOL Dobbs, issued orders for his battalion, many of who had not slept for 48 hours, to take turns sleeping and he issued strict noise and light orders. That is why when he saw a light approaching on a distant vehicle at 7:45pm he bellowed ‘Put that bloody light out’.  The light was in fact a Japanese light tank that obviously refused to obey. SGT Andy Andrews then noted “… we had the ‘Barber Shop Quartet’, where the Japs went through their chanting procedure….it was a most unreal thing …. It was quite off-putting in a way because it was something we’d never heard before….it was a sort of ritual I think, or perhaps a passing down of orders”. Many troops had the feeling that their lines had been infiltrated by this point.

At 8pm the Japanese launched their attack, they relied on their tanks to identify the Australian positions and pinned them down with heavy machine gun fire.  The Japanese then deployed machine gun crews near the identified Australian positions. B Company took much of the early action, especially 10 Platoon, that was positioned on the forward coastal position. By 9pm 10 Platoon had been broken up and scattered. 14 Platoon had been positioned at the coast to defend against landing craft but with the dispersal of 10 Platoon they were now on the front lines and had to reposition. Hand to hand fighting ensued and the tank crept ever closer to 11 and 15 Platoons. A number of attempts were made to disable the tanks with sticky bombs, but the humidity had ruined the internal mechanisms. Around 11:30pm the battalion began the withdrawal, but the lack of communications made it far from an organised exercise. Though the battle for KB Mission was over, costing the 2nd/10th 43 men and another 26 wounded, the Japanese soon discovered the battle of Milne Bay was far from over.

After skirmishes with the 25th Battalion and becoming bogged at Rabi, the Japanese defenders eventually reached the edge of the eastern most airfield. On the morning of 31 August, renewed with 800 reinforcements, the Japanese charged the airfield. The allied defenders, unlike at the KB Mission, were well prepared having had the luxury of time and resources to develop the defensive line from Stephen’s Ridge to the beach. The defensive position was well manned with the 25th and 61st Battalions as well as the United States 43rd Engineer Regiment and the 709th Anti-Aircraft Battery. The Japanese attackers had formed up on the track and eastern end of the air strip where they were engaged by machine gun fire and incurred significant casualties. LT Keith Acreman prepared the ranging of the mortars exacting a further toll. The Japanese formed up to attack three times, each attempt unsuccessful.

The Japanese then executed a flanking manoeuvre towards Stephen’s Ridge however the Allies were ready. When the Japanese were between 20 and 30 yards out, the 61st Battalion’s Bren guns opened up and the Japanese offered little resistance. Bill Wilson recounted “ they [the Japanese] must have been sickened by what happened to them on the strip… they did not persist.” A Bugle call was heard before dawn which signalled the end of the battle and the Japanese began to withdraw.

Major General Cyril Clowes ordered a counterattack and ordered the 2nd/12th Battalion to pursue the retreating Japanese. The 2nd/9th later joined the pursuit of the retreating Japanese but despite the skilled and determined Japanese rear guard action the allied troops steadily pushed them back. Japanese high command advocated reinforcing the Milne Bay force, but the Japanese commander recommended immediate withdrawal noting exhaustion and an increasing level of sickness amongst his remaining troops.

The consistent pursuit of the Japanese by the RAAF had a significant impact on the battle with the Japanese troops taking to the jungle for advances during daylight hours to avoid their detection and on many occasions allowing the allied troops a chance to regroup and take the initiative. Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, the commander of New Guinea Force, noted in his report that the effort of the fighter squadrons was “the decisive factor” in the ultimate victory over the invading forces.

Of the 2,800 Japanese troops that landed only 1,318 re-embarked. 750 Japanese Marines lay dead at Milne Bay and many more were killed trying to escape overland to the Japanese base at Buna. Allies estimate their losses for this battle were 167 Australians and 14 Americans.

Battle of Milne Bay interactive map

Caption: Japanese landing and defeat at Milne Bay.

Caption: From the book "A Bastard of a Place" by Peter Brune