Sattelberg area, New Guinea, 17 November 1943. As a wounded soldier of 2/48 Battalion is carried back for treatment, Matildas of 1 Tank Battalion move forward with the infantry (AWM 060615).
Coast north of Finschhafen, November 1943. Matildas of 1 Tank Battalion advance with infantry of 29/46 Battalion, probably on 19 November. The next day they captured a key objective, Fortification Point (AWM 016290).
The Huon Peninsula. This forms part of the northern coastline of New Guinea. It is extremely rugged, and a hostile area to the battles that were fought there from September 1943 to January 1944.
The focus of Japanese defensive strength in the South West Pacific was the port of Rabaul which boasted the magnificent Blanche Harbour, the crater of an historic volcanic eruption. It could accommodate a substantial navy in deep and safe water and was well defended by the Japanese Naval Air Force. MacArthur’s early strategy aimed to recapture Rabaul then advance to the Philippines.
From 17 to 24 August 1943 a conference was held in Quebec between Roosevelt and Churchill and their Chiefs of Staff. Long writes that:
Two important decisions concerning the Pacific theatre were made about this time. The Combined Chiefs decided that the strongly-held fortress of Rabaul should be bypassed, a proposal that had been under discussion at Washington since June. They wished instead to encircle it by seizing Kavieng, Manus and Wewak. MacArthur was opposed to attacking Wewak before Rabaul, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff overruled him. They decided also that in the summer of 1943-44 western New Britain and the Gilbert and Marshall Islands should be attacked, that Ponape and the Admiralties should be taken in the southern winter of 1944, and Truk and the Marianas in the following spring and summer.
The immediate requirement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff strategy was the occupation of the northern coastline of New Guinea. Once ports and airfields had been constructed there, the passage of the Vitiaz Strait would become very dangerous for the Japanese and the Allies would have jumping-off sites for their advance further north.
In September 1943 a combined sea-air-land operation involving the 7th and 9th Australian Infantry Divisions alongside American troops captured Lae and Salamaua and, in the process, took possession of the important airfield of Nadzab. The operation was conducted with speed and skill, and Lae fell sooner than expected. MacArthur and Blamey then decided to press rapidly along the coast of the Huon Peninsula, towards the immediate objectives of Finschhafen, Langemak Bay, and the high ground of the hinterland, particularly the dominant feature of Sattelberg. Sattelberg was a mountain mission station five miles inland and 3,000 feet above sea level.
The attack on Finschhafen was conducted by the 20th Infantry Brigade (Windeyer) of the 9th Division (Wootten), and a strong beachhead was established some six miles north of Finschhafen. Japanese reaction was swift and the 20th Brigade was subjected to fierce counter-attacks. The Japanese also mounted a stout defence at Finschhafen itself. In the light of the strength of the Japanese resistance, Windeyer asked Wootten for another infantry battalion. He also requested a squadron of tanks, for which he could see important tasks.
The 1st Tank Battalion of the 4th Armoured Brigade had been undertaking amphibious and jungle training, and was moved to Milne Bay in August 1943. There the battalion gave demonstrations to the infantry to show the value of tank support, and continued to learn how to use tanks in the jungle. In September the battalion was moved to Morobe on the north coast of New Guinea, 100 miles south-east of Lae.
On 9 October, Major Ford of the 1st Tank Battalion scouted the Finschhafen area and reported that tanks could operate in small numbers and that the infantry was enthusiastic about the possible use of tanks to deal with strongpoints.
One of the problems in the campaigns in the South West Pacific Area was the reluctant cooperation of the US Navy. The Navy had many commitments in the Pacific, and there was a particularly strong demand for landing craft of all types. Thus the timing of the provision of landing craft to transport the tanks from Morobe to Langemak Bay to meet Windeyer’s request was potentially problematic.
Early in the morning of 19 October, a lookout at Morobe reported the presence of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the bay. It had arrived without warning to find C Squadron standing by at six hours’ notice. The squadron, under the command of Major Sam Hordern, embarked with all possible speed and sailed at 1530 hours that day. Nine officers and 136 other ranks embarked, together with eighteen tanks, five jeeps, one slave battery carrier and one fitters’ carrier. They took with them rations, fuel and ammunition for ten days. Next morning, at 0330 hours, the LST began to unload at Langemak Bay. The battalion’s war diarist records the scene:
An unloading party met the ship, but appeared to have little or no organisation and showed a desire to watch the tanks rather than unload. As a result squadron personnel unloaded the greater bulk of the stores which were packed in the tank deck, and some confusion was caused by unloading both tanks and stores together. The narrow strip of beach and the track from the beach was soft and muddy. Operations were done under blackout conditions as enemy aircraft were attacking shipping farther out in the bay. The ship’s commander had expressed his intention of leaving in one hour irrespective of whether all stores were off. Stores were being dumped at the unloading point causing much congestion. A number of tanks got off, then one bogged on the track just clear of the beach, and the remainder had to be diverted and a detour made through thick secondary growth necessitating a sharp turn on the soft beach. Despite these difficulties all vehicles were unloaded and moved off the beach. At 0430 the LST commenced to move away with large quantities of fuel, ammunition and rations still on board. Men were still throwing ammunition off, and jumping into the water themselves with the ramp half up.
As soon as it landed, the squadron began training with the infantry of the 26th Brigade (Whitehead), which comprised the 2/23rd, 2/24th, and 2/48th Infantry Battalions. Squadron officers also began to reconnoitre the anticipated battle areas to determine which areas were suitable for tanks. Much of the terrain consisted of steep jungle-clad hills, although there were some patches of fivefoot-high kunai grass on the coastal plain. The few tracks available were narrow, twisting, and in places liable to subside into the valleys below. In general, visibility was limited to a few yards. The tanks had two advantages: they were unexpected and they were — initially at least — impervious to any anti-tank measures the Japanese could devise.
C Squadron moved from the coast to the forward assembly area at Jivevenang, which they reached on 13 November. The track from the coast ran through thick jungle and was very steep in parts. Its surface became glassy and slippery in hot weather, making it difficult for the tanks with their steel tracks to climb its steep slopes. Their arrival at Jivevenang gave them the opportunity to train with the infantrymen of the 2/48th Battalion and to use sand-table exercises to prepare for the attack on Sattelberg. During this period the tanks remained well concealed to preserve the element of surprise.
The 26th Infantry Brigade’s plan of attack, in so far as it affected the tanks, involved the advance of the 2/48th Infantry Battalion, supported by two troops of C Squadron, from Jivevenang along the axis of the Sattelberg road. The track ran for the most part along a high ridge which, at times, narrowed to a razorback, covered with dense bamboo and thick secondary growth.
The attack began on 17 November with C Company of 2/48 Battalion supported by 5 Troop, with Major Hordern’s tank in the rear. There was stiff opposition from heavy machine-guns and bunkers sited to cover the road, with visibility limited by dense bamboo. The infantry used walkie-talkies to communicate with the tanks.
At around 1500 hours the track of the leading tank (Lieutenant O’Connell) was blown off by an unexploded 25-pdr shell, blocking further progress by the tanks as the track was too narrow for passing. Some enemy approached close to Corporal Tomlin’s tank and threw explosives onto the front, blowing the Besa machine-gun back into the turret and slightly wounding two of the crew.
A perimeter was formed round the tank with the broken track and it was eventually repaired. The crew had been closed down for about eight hours and the tank was peppered with small arms fire. During the day, the tanks fired 120 rounds of 3-inch howitzer shells, 11,700 rounds of Besa and 234 rounds of 2-pdr high explosive and made considerable headway. The infantry’s casualties were very light.
The following day a composite troop of two 2-pdr tanks from 1 Troop and one 3-inch close support tank from 2 Troop was used. By 1130 hours two tanks had succeeded in getting onto Coconut Ridge, knocking out two 37mm guns, about fifteen machine-guns and a possible heavy gun. The damaged tank was repaired during the day and returned to the fight. By nightfall, advance tank HQ and seven tanks were rallied with A and D Companies.
The advance up the Sattelberg track continued over the next two days. At one point the tanks left the road using a track prepared by infantry and engineers and successfully engaged a pocket of resistance blocking the progress of the 2/23rd Battalion on the left flank. The main track became too difficult for the tanks some distance from Sattelberg and the final assault was an infantry battle. It was in this final push that Sergeant Tom Derrick won the VC.
The final attack had been assisted on the right flank by 4 Troop, which had moved up the 2/48th area on the high ground east of Sattelberg. The approach to this area was the worst going so far encountered. The tanks were preceded by a bulldozer, and their success in negotiating such country amazed everyone, including the tank crews themselves.
The next attack in which the tanks participated was further to the north along the coast. On 24 November a composite troop consisting of 3 Troop and one tank from 2 Troop commanded by Lieutenant Watson, crossed the Song River near its mouth and reached HQ 2/23rd Infantry Battalion. On 26 November they supported two companies of the 2/32nd in an attack on Pino Ridge.
The approach to Pino Ridge was up steep kunai slopes with patches of wooded jungle. The tanks advanced in pairs through the kunai guarded by the infantry moving on the fringe of the jungle. The enemy refused to face the tanks, and the objective was easily gained.
The next stage of the advance was along the coast to Bonga. Here the terrain consisted of flat marshy ground covered with dense jungle. The tanks were quite unable to get off the track and delays due to difficulties in crossing some creeks meant that, for much of the time, they had to follow the infantry. In some places there were bridges over the creeks, but the Japanese had taken the precaution of sawing through the bridge members. The approaching Australians were forced to wait for the engineers to construct a bridge, or for the creek banks to be broken down to form a ford.
At these points the infantry adopted their routine jungle tactics and, if they met strongly entrenched defences, simply waited for the tanks to advance. Their supporting fire was invariably decisive. The tanks involved in this advance were 2 and 3 Troops of C Squadron.
After Bonga, the axis of advance turned inland for a short period. Here the ground consisted of steep kunai slopes with large patches of jungle. The Bonga– Wareo track ran along a high spur with numerous ravines on either side. The enemy offered strong resistance from positions often sited in the jungle well clear of the track. The tanks were initially held in reserve, attacking strongpoints located by infantry patrols. On 2 December one tank fought a duel with one 75mm and one 37mm Japanese gun at a range of 200 yards and was eventually disabled after taking fifty hits. No shells penetrated the armour, but tracks and track adjusters were damaged, requiring several hours of repairs.
On the same day, General Wootten issued orders for the next phase of the advance north. The first major objective on this axis was Fortification Point, to be captured by the 4th Infantry Brigade, which had recently come under Wootten’s command. The attack began on 5 December with the 29/46th Infantry Battalion supported by 3 Troop of C Squadron.
In this area the ground was flat and swampy, intersected by numerous banked creeks. There were some patches of kunai but, in general, thick secondary growth predominated on the narrow coastal flat, with steep kunai hills to the west. The tanks were again used as a strong reserve of armoured firepower to be brought forward when solid opposition was struck. The forward infantry had to make an initial assault on a strong line of bunkers protected by a minefield. The tanks were successful in demolishing the bunkers and assisting the infantry to break through, but in the subsequent advance the tanks were delayed at creek crossings and by enemy defensive methods, forcing the infantry to continue to advance without their support.
At this stage enemy anti-tank mines proved very effective. These mines were buried deep on and off the track and were cleverly concealed. Three tanks, a bulldozer and a tractor had tracks blown off and one tank was badly damaged. In view of the difficulty of locating the mines, either with mine-detectors or by probing with bayonets, another track was cut to allow the tanks to keep up. The delay caused by the necessity to cut tracks meant that the infantry were without tanks for two days.
On 11 December, the HQ and A Squadron of the 1st Tank Battalion reached Finschhafen and Colonel Glasgow immediately ordered the relief of C Squadron by A Squadron. The relief was completed on 15 December. At this stage the infantry were positioned outside Lakona three miles short of Fortification Point attempting, with artillery support, to eliminate a pocket of Japanese hemmed in against the coast. In two days they had made little progress. The tanks had been delayed by a succession of creeks over which the engineers had to build crossings with the help of bulldozers, but soon rejoined the infantry to support them in a further attack. This attack destroyed the enemy in a little over an hour’s fighting.
Several more rearguard positions were overcome before the force reached Fortification Point on 19 December. On 21 December, the 4th Infantry Brigade was replaced by the 20th Brigade, which continued the advance towards Sio, fifty miles to the north-west. Here the coastal belt was fairly wide, flat and covered with kunai. Except for the creeks, the going was not too difficult and the serious obstacles were bypassed by using landing craft from beach to beach.
As the pace of the advance quickened, the opportunities for tanks diminished and, when tanks were used, the enemy generally fled. The campaign virtually ended for the tanks on 9 January 1944 when A Squadron was moved back to join the rest of the battalion at Bonga. The battalion was renamed the 1st Armoured Regiment on 1 June 1944 and, during that month, the regiment moved back to mainland Australia.