Australians at D-Day


On the night of 5/6 June Bomber Command conducted precision attacks on ten German coastal artillery batteries near the beaches where Allied troops were to land. Each battery was targeted by approximately 100 heavy bombers, and all four Australian heavy bomber squadrons took part in the operation. No. 460 Squadron dispatched 26 aircraft, which were evenly split between attacking the batteries at Fontenay-Crisbecq and St Martin de Varreville. No. 466 Squadron provided 13 aircraft to the raid on batteries at Merville-Franceville Maisy, 14 aircraft from No. 463 Squadron struck Pointe du Hoe and No. 467 Squadron dispatched 14 against batteries at Ouistreham. The RAAF squadrons did not suffer any losses. Many Australian aircrew posted to British units also participated in this attack, and 14.8 percent of the 1,136 Bomber Command aircraft despatched were either part of RAAF squadrons or were flown by Australians.

Australians posted to RAF units also landed paratroopers in Normandy and took part in diversionary operations. On the night of 5/6 June several Australian airmen served in heavy bombers that dropped “window” chaff in patterns that, on German radar, simulated the appearance of convoys headed for the Pas de Calais region of France. Other Australians served in aircraft that dropped dummy paratroopers and jammed German radar. One Australian pilot posted to No. 139 Squadron RAF took part in “intruder” bombing raids against targets in western Germany and the Low Countries that sought to divert German aircraft away from Normandy. Australian aircrew also served aboard the transport aircraft of No. 38 Group RAF and No. 46 Group RAF, which flew the British 6th Airborne Division from the UK to Normandy on the night of 5/6 June. About 14 percent of the transport aircraft in No. 38 Group were piloted by Australians, though the proportion of Australians in No. 46 Group was much lower. There were no completely Australian aircrews in either group.

Australian aircrew supported the fighting on 6 June. No. 453 Squadron was one of 36 Allied squadrons that provided low-altitude air defence for the invasion fleet and landing force. Many of the squadron’s pilots flew several sorties during the day, though they did not encounter any German aircraft. No. 456 Squadron also formed part of the force that provided air defence for the invasion area at night. In addition, about 200 Australian pilots were spread across the dozens of RAF fighter and fighter-bomber units that supported the landings. A small number of Australian aircrew also served in RAF reconnaissance units and 2TAF’s light bomber squadrons, which also saw combat over France on D-Day. The three Australian squadrons assigned to Coastal Command flew only a small number of sorties on 6 June as few German submarines or E-boats put to sea.

About 500 RAN personnel served on board RN ships involved in the operation. While most formed part of the crew of RN warships, several Australian officers led flotillas of landing craft and others commanded individual craft. For instance, Sub-Lieutenant Dean Murray commanded a force of six RN Landing Craft Assault that landed soldiers of the British 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach. Hudspeth also took X20 across the channel to mark the edge of Juno Beach during the landings there; he received his third DSC for completing this mission. Some of the warships with Australian crew members that supported the landings were HMS Ajax (which had three RANVR officers on board), Ashanti, Enterprise, Eskimo, Glasgow, Mackay and Scylla. Australian members of the Merchant Navy also participated in the D-Day landings, though the number of sailors involved is not known.

Few of the Australian Army officers attached to British units landed on D-Day. Major Jo Gullett, who was the second in command of an infantry company in the 7th Battalion, Green Howards, came ashore on Gold Beach as part of the invasion force. In his memoirs, Gullett described the landing as “easily the most impressive occasion of my life”. He subsequently led a company of the Royal Scots until he was wounded by German machine gun fire on 17 July. Most of the other Australian officers served in staff positions; for instance Lieutenant Colonel Bill Robertson was the chief of staff of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division when that unit arrived in Normandy and was later posted to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division where he served in the same role. Vincent came ashore on 7 June and served with XXX Corps, 7th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Divisions during the campaign.

Due to the lack of a nominal roll or other records listing the Australians who took part in the D-Day landings, it is not possible to determine the exact number involved. However, it has been estimated that about 3,000 Australian military personnel and merchant seamen participated in the operation. The total number of Australians killed on 6 June was 14, of whom 12 were RAAF airmen and two were members of the RAN.

Book: The Cross in the Sky


The Life and Adventures of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton
Soldier – Pioneer Aviator – Pathfinder for Global Peacekeeping.

by Charles Stuart Eaton

Foreword by Dick Smith AO
In Retrospect Air Commodore Dr Mark Lax OAM, CSM

The Cross in the Sky is the remarkable story of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton. As a soldier, pioneer aviator and pathfinder for global peacekeeping, Charles emerges as a trail-blazer in many realms. His story is intertwined with tectonic world events and a 65-year romance with Beatrice Rose Godfrey.

Eaton served every day of both world wars, starting with the Royal West Surreys and finishing with the Royal Australian Air Force. He was a prisoner of war and twice court-martialled by the German Army. After the Armistice, he ferried delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he flew in the first aerial survey of India, after which he lived amongst the Khond people of Orissa.

In Central Australia, following the disappearances of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross and Lasseter’s Golden Quest, he led rescue missions into the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts before establishing and then participating in the air defences of north-west Australia and West Papua during World War Two. As the Australian Consul in East Timor, he assisted the post-war reconstruction of that war-torn land.

In the midst of the Indonesian War of Independence, his life-long experience culminated in initiatives that led to the first United Nations venture to monitor conflict resolution. As Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the new nation of Indonesia, Charles Eaton laid the foundations of Australian–Indonesian bi-lateral relations.

The Cross in the Sky is the story of an extraordinary man, told by his younger son—and witness to some of these events—Charles Stuart Eaton.




The Sudan Campaign: Troup Convoy

The P & O liner Iberia was requisitioned to carry troops to the Sudan

The first Australian troops to go overseas left Sydney in March 1885, when, following the murder of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, the colony of New South Wales raised a small contingent to assist British forces fighting an outbreak of hostilities in Sudan. This first deployment of Australian troops overseas was rapidly arranged, in response to the public outcry over the death of Gordon, who was the most famous British general of his time. Although Gordon was killed on 26 January 1885, news of his death did not reach Australia until 11 February. Two days later, William Dalley, Acting Premier of New South Wales, sent a message to the British government offering the service of a contingent of soldiers from the colony to assist British soldiers already fighting in Sudan. It was decided the New South Wales force would comprise an infantry battalion of 522 men, with 24 horses for officers, and two artillery batteries numbering 212 men and 172 horses, to be dispatched as soon as possible.

Once the decision to raise this force had been taken, there were some doubts that it could be achieved, given the short time available to select and equip the contingent, but so many men volunteered the major difficulty was in choosing the right men for the job. Those selected were immediately sent to Victoria Barracks, in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, for training.

Meanwhile, two passenger vessels then berthed in Sydney, Iberia and Australasian, were requisitioned to transport the contingent to the Sudan. Iberia was the larger and older, having been built in 1874 for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. Initially used on their service from Britain to South America, Iberia joined the Australian trade in 1883, and had already been used to transport British troops to Egypt for the Sudanese war. The single-funnelled Australasian, owned by the Aberdeen Line, was quite new, having entered service in 1884, and was one of the first steamships in the world fitted with triple expansion machinery, but as with Iberia, having a hull built from iron. The black hulls of both ships were quickly repainted white for their trooping duty, and they looked very smart. Also, as befitted their temporary status as troop transports, they were given official numbers, with Iberia having 1 NSW painted on its sides, while Australasian was 2 NSW.

On Saturday, 28 February, with 50,000 people watching, the entire contingent paraded in an official review in Moore Park, while the following day, special church services were held in honour of the troops, and 2 March saw many of the men making their final farewells.

Tuesday, 3 March 1885, was to become one of the most important days in the history of New South Wales, for, as the Sydney Mail stated that day, ‘our men have the proud pre-eminence — in the matter of which every good and true man in the other colonies will envy them — of being the first selected to strike a blow for the old country in her hour of need in Africa.’ In the morning, the troops gathered in the grounds of Victoria Barracks, where they had a final chance to enjoy the company of family and friends. At midday, a bugle sounded for the troops to fall in, and they prepared to march to Circular Quay, where the Australasian and Iberia awaited them. A newspaper recorded how, following the bugle call, there were ‘hurried squeezes of the hand, a last kiss to sweethearts, wives or sisters, and the men seizing their rifles rush off amidst numerous goodbyes to their position. There occurs a brief interval during which the roll of each company is called. The men amidst loud cheering, waving of handkerchiefs, and the tap of the drum, the movement from New South Wales to Egypt had commenced. The band played one of the liveliest marches and the men trooped out, their bearing, their physique, and the smartness of their dress, at once challenged and won general admiration.’

Along the route from Victoria Barracks to Circular Quay the marching men passed down streets thronged with an estimated 200,000 cheering spectators, about two-thirds of the population of Sydney. On reaching the wharf, all the infantrymen and some members of the artillery boarded the Iberia, on which the officers were allocated berths in cabins while the other ranks had to make do with hammocks strung up in the ’tween decks. The majority of the artillerymen went on board the Australasian, where the officers were again allowed to use cabins while the other ranks were allocated the accommodation used by emigrants on the voyage from Britain to Australia. Also going on board the Australasian were the 218 horses, which were put into specially constructed stalls in the holds.

As the ships prepared for departure, the troops were addressed by Lord Loftus, the Governor of New South Wales, who told them: ‘Soldiers of New South Wales, for the first time in the great history of the British Empire, a distant colony is sending, at her own cost, a completely equipped contingent of troops who have volunteered with enthusiasm of which only we who have witnessed it can judge.’ As departure time neared, an armada of vessels of all shapes and sizes began to throng the harbour. Despite the seriousness of the occasion, the day assumed more of a festive air, though before it was over there would also be tragedy.

Iberia was the first of the troopships to leave the wharf, shortly after 3 pm, followed minutes later by Australasian. As the pair proceeded slowly down harbour, they were surrounded by steamers carrying wellwishers, while every vantage point ashore was packed. As the two ships rounded Bradleys Head, Australasian moved ahead of Iberia, while bands aboard surrounding boats played merrily such patriotic tunes as ‘Rule Britannia.’

One of the larger vessels escorting the troopships that day was the coastal steamer Nemesis, owned by Huddart Parker Limited, which was carrying a large number of relatives and friends of departing soldiers. Among them was Elizabeth Sessle, waving farewell to her husband, Private F. Sessle, who was on board Iberia. Elizabeth was carrying their fifteen-month-old child, and with them on the Nemesis was a friend and neighbour, Ann Capel. Elizabeth located her husband standing at the railings of Iberia, and to get a better view moved forward on the starboard side towards the bow of Nemesis, then held her child up for her husband to see.

By now, Australasian had passed through Sydney Heads and was heading off down the coast, while Iberia was off South Head, still moving very slowly. Suddenly Iberia began to surge ahead as power was increased, and in doing so the order was given to turn to starboard. In performing this manoeuvre, the port quarter of Iberia smashed into the starboard bow of Nemesis, with a crash that could be heard by those on shore. The impact caused minor damage to one of the lifeboats on Iberia, but the forward section of Nemesis was devastated by the accommodation ladder still hanging down the side of the troopship. In an instant, Ann Capel was killed, while Elizabeth Sessle was severely injured, and the infant she was holding suffered a fractured thigh.

Despite the collision, Iberia continued on course and was soon out at sea, joining up with Australasian. The two ships were accompanied by some of the vessels that had escorted them down the harbour, until off Bondi the last escort vessel turned around, and the pair of troopships disappeared to the south at the start of their long journey, raising sail on their masts to increase their speed. On board Iberia, Private Sessle, who had seen the collision, could only wonder what had happened to his wife and child. Immediately after the collision, Nemesis steamed at top speed back to her berth. Elizabeth Sessle was rushed to hospital, but so severely had she been injured, she died the same night.

Such was the nationalistic fervour generated by the departure of the first Australian troops overseas, the next day the Sydney Mail trumpeted: ‘Tuesday the 3rd March 1885, will be forever a red-letter day on which this colony, not yet a hundred years old, put forth its claims to be recognised as an integral portion of the British Empire … This day marks an entirely new departure as regards the relations between the Old Country and her colonies. Hitherto the colonies have been regarded by many politicians as a drag upon the home country, and statesmen have been heard to say that the colonies of England were a source of weakness to her, not strength. The fallacy of such statements was demonstrated beyond dispute by the events of yesterday. If ever there was in the history of the world an occasion where everything that had been arranged was performed to the letter, if ever there was a day when a programme literally arranged was carried out satisfactorily it was yesterday, when the chosen troops of New South Wales, the picked men of the colony, embarked for the purpose of assisting the British arms in the Sudan.’

As the troopships headed south from Sydney they ran into bad weather and heavy seas, which resulted in many men succumbing to seasickness. One trooper wrote in his diary how ‘the ’tween deck was so crowded and the stench was horrible.’ After passing through Bass Strait, the two ships headed west, but Iberia took a more northerly course and on the evening of 6 March stopped for two hours off Kangaroo Island, where it was soon surrounded by numerous pleasure craft packed with residents of Adelaide. During the brief stop, troopers were able to send off final letters to loved ones, and Private Sessle left the ship to return to Sydney. A large quantity of fruit was taken on board, while two men and a young boy who came on board Iberia tried to stay as stowaways, but were found and sent off in a boat before the Iberia continued its voyage. The last sight of Australia for the troops on board was on 10 March, as Iberia passed Cape Leeuwin.

More bad weather was encountered as the two ships crossed the Great Australian Bight. This caused the captain of the Australasian to order a reduction in speed, primarily to avoid an injury to the horses in their stalls. Instead of slowing to stay with her companion, Iberia steamed on ahead at her normal speed.

On board, a daily routine was quickly established. Breakfast was at 8 am, lunch at 1 pm and supper at 5 pm, and on the whole the food supplied was good and in adequate quantity. During the day, fruit was issued at 11 am, and at 1.30 pm there was an issue of beer and lime juice. In between meals, the troops went through exercises and training routines, except on Saturday, when sports contests were held, and Sunday, when religious services were held, led by the Anglican and Roman Catholic chaplains on board.

As the ships steamed across the Indian Ocean towards the Sudan, back in Sydney parliament convened on 17 March to actually give their approval to the dispatch of the troops. So swiftly had the contingent been organised and sent away that parliament had not had an opportunity to meet and debate the matter, but there were only a few dissenting voices when the members did get down to discussions. One notable voice of dissent was Sir Henry Parkes, who was a persistent critic of Dalley and the contingent. As Dalley said, ‘We have undoubtedly strained the law … It is for parliament to determine whether we are to be censured or supported.’ In the end the motion to support the dispatch of the contingent was passed without a division on the evening of 19 March.

By then, Australasian and Iberia were well into the Indian Ocean, following a north-westerly course that soon took them into the tropics, Iberia crossing the equator on 22 March. Of course, the ships were totally out of touch with events happening in the Sudan, so as the voyage progressed some of the officers from the contingent pressed the ship’s captain to increase speed, as they were fearful the conflict might be over before they arrived. Their first port of call was to be Aden, at the southern end of the Red Sea. As Iberia neared Aden, she passed another Orient Line vessel, Lusitania, bound for Australia, and the troops lined the rails to wave to the passing ship, whose passengers waved back.The next day, 26 March, Iberia dropped anchor off Aden, and those on board finally received news of what was happening in the Sudan. Orders were received that the contingent was to proceed to Suakin, and the troops would be sent to the front right away. This news filled all on board with pride and excitement. Prior to leaving Aden, two men were sent ashore, one with a broken ankle, the other with spinal damage, to be returned to Australia on the first available ship. As Iberia steamed up the Red Sea, live ammunition was distributed to all troops, who busily cleaned their rifles and other weapons.

Iberia dropped anchor off Suakin at noon on Sunday, 29 March, and the Australian troops marched ashore to begin an association with Africa that would encompass four wars. Australasian arrived the next day and immediately disembarked her troops and horses. Despite the promise of being sent to the front straight away, the New South Wales force saw very little action, their only time under enemy fire being the attack on 3 April 1885 on the rebel stronghold at Tamai, during which three men were slightly wounded. In fact, the soldiers were in far more danger from disease and the first Australian soldier to die overseas, Private Robert Weir, succumbed to dysenteric fever while on board the British hospital ship Ganges, berthed in Suakin, while two others died from typhoid fever.

After little more than a year overseas, the troops returned to Australia, with very little fanfare or recognition. On 17 May 1886 they marched back to the harbour at Suakin and boarded the troopship Arab. The horses they had taken did not make the return trip, but were handed over to the British troops. Arab left Suakin on 18 May 1886, but many of the troops were sick with typhoid and dysentery. Arab was smaller than either of the ships that had carried the contingent to the Sudan, but the men were allowed to sleep on deck to ease the crowded conditions below. When the ship stopped at Colombo on 29 May, twelve of the sickest men were taken to hospital ashore, where three of them later died. From Colombo to Albany, at least one in ten of the men reported for the daily sick parade, and on 9 June the veterinary surgeon, Captain Anthony Willows, died, being buried at sea. After a brief stop at Albany to take on coal, during which no-one was allowed ashore, the Arab reached Sydney on the night of Friday, 19 June. Instead of going to a berth, the vessel anchored and all the troops were put into the quarantine station at North Head, where one more man died.

On the morning of Tuesday, 23 June, the survivors were released from quarantine and taken back to the Arab, which then proceeded up the harbour and berthed at Sydney Cove. The Governor of New South Wales along with the Premier and ministers were waiting to accord the men an official welcome, but the rain was pouring down and the original plan of a march through the city to Moore Park for an official review was cancelled. Instead, the troops marched to Victoria Barracks, where the official speeches of welcome were delivered. A few days later another trooper died, the result of a cold he caught while taking part in the march. As Colonel A J. Bennett, a member of the contingent, later summed up the Sudan campaign, ‘a few skirmishes and many weary marches provided much sweat but little glory.’

Despite the fervour with which they were dispatched to the war zone, the first departure of Australian troops for overseas service is not well remembered today. In fact it is almost forgotten.

Douglas MacArthur’s “Strategic Withdrawal”

By February 17, effective resistance to the Japanese invasion on Sumatra ceased. Two days later, Japanese troops from the Celebes came ashore on Bali. That same date, the 19th, Japanese began landings in Portuguese Timor, and Nagumo launched his massive strike toward Port Darwin, Australia. One hundred fifty aircraft, including shore-based bombers stationed in the Celebes, struck their targets on the north coast of the continent during midmorning with devastating effectiveness.

With the Australians reeling from the attack, the Japanese returned their attention to finishing off Java, the last hope the Allies had in halting the Japanese juggernaut. It was to Java via Australia that many of the aircraft originally promised to MacArthur were destined.

The Philippine defenders who were privy to the incoming news about the fate of the P-40s aboard the Langley and the Sea Witch knew with little doubt they were on their own.

By the end of February, MacArthur no longer sent hopeful messages to the front. He was no longer in denial. The promises made by Washington would not come to fruition. But MacArthur continued to send them a flurry of cables. A total of 142 communiqués sent by the general pleaded for help and recounted the success he was having in holding out. Of those, 109 mentioned only one soldier, Douglas MacArthur. In reality, given the gloom all over the region, the general had to consider the worsening strategic situation in all of the South Pacific as hopeless. He now looked to the future, his own, by browbeating sickly President Quezon into agreeing to rehire him as Philippine field marshal after the war at the same inflated pay and allowances he was currently receiving.

In March, the U.S. Navy sortied again. Vice Admiral Halsey took the Enterprise to sea, and on March 4 struck the Marcus Islands, 650 miles west of Wake and only 1,000 miles from Tokyo. Meanwhile, not a single ship was making its way west to support the Philippines.

Somehow, through all of this chagrin, MacArthur’s men were making a better stand of it than had the British in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra, and now Java. Both Percival in Singapore and MacArthur in the Philippines had the advantage of manpower over the Japanese, but MacArthur had fewer aircraft, and his munitions and arms were inferior as was the level of training and experience of his men. Percival’s warehouses had been full of food, and reinforcements had arrived. The Americans and Filipinos on Bataan, however, were putting up a gallant effort while on starvation rations and without military reinforcements. Several steamers, the Legaspi among them, did bring four days of rations to Corregidor,4 but additional food reserves intended for the starving infantry fighting on Bataan were diverted by MacArthur to Corregidor, where no time was wasted consuming them.

The U.S. Navy was still unwilling to risk sending a convoy, opting only to send in a meager supply of munitions via submarine. Part of the reason the troops were holding out on the peninsula was due to the confidence they had that help was coming according to the directions that emanated from Lateral No. 3. Now, that confidence was beginning to falter.

Three times MacArthur refused to evacuate Corregidor, electing to remain in command on the Rock. Roosevelt and the Washington general staff knew they could abandon the Filipinos, but to have MacArthur, a national hero, go down with them would not sit well with the public. As for MacArthur, he had no illusions about his own chances of surviving in defeat. He was 62 years old, the war was just beginning, and the Allies were losing on all fronts. It would be many, many years before he might be released from captivity. To remain to the end on Corregidor and surrender to the Japanese augured a likely death sentence for MacArthur. But his stock purchase, acceptance of the $500,000 bonus (which he kept secret at the time), and his request to Quezon that he be rehired at the end of the war indicate that at least somewhere in MacArthur’s thoughts was the idea that he had no intention of going down in glory with his troops.

General Marshall radioed from Washington that a submarine would be sent for Jean and little Arthur along with the Quezons. Upon hearing of the plan, Jean rejected it. Speaking about her relationship with Douglas, Jean remarked to Mrs. Quezon, “We have drunk from the same cup.” Then indicating her son, Arthur IV, she added, “We three shall stay together.” When she made her wishes known to Douglas, he radioed Marshall that his family would share “the rigors of war.” Then he asked his advisor Huff to find some ammunition for a small derringer MacArthur had inherited from his father. Somehow Huff soon came up with two of the odd-sized rounds needed. Though MacArthur might flee, he was prepared to avoid capture.

During the third week of February, the Quezons and High Commissioner Sayre departed Corregidor via submarine. MacArthur sent along a footlocker filled with personal family items, some stocks and bonds, photographs, and several magazine articles about himself which Jean had saved. The locker was addressed to the Riggs National Bank of Washington, where it was to be held until the general or his heirs claimed it.

It was one thing to lose a heroic leader in a lost cause, but by adding his family to it, MacArthur had upped the political ante. General Marshall in Washington now pushed for the evacuation of MacArthur, no matter what the method. The legendary general had to be saved

On February 23, a cable was received ordering the general to proceed to Mindanao, where he was to investigate the feasibility of defending that island, then depart for Melbourne to assume command of all U.S. troops in the South Pacific. MacArthur debated his response, then replied that he would agree to his withdrawal, but asked for a delay to choose the right “psychological time.” Washington concurred. Four days passed while MacArthur considered his exit. If he left by submarine, there would be room for precious few aboard, namely he, his wife and son, and possibly a few others could be squeezed aboard. But whom would he choose? In the end, he would be saving his own skin. To slip a B-17 onto the island or one of the Bataan fields would have an even worse effect, a highly visible departure. If nothing else, MacArthur was a great tactician, and a plan began to jell in his mind.

On March 1, he ordered his entire remaining P-40 force at Kindley Field on Corregidor, four aircraft, to fly top cover over Manila Bay while he tried out his theory. He then had his remaining Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three commander sail the three miles to Corregidor in one of his PT-boats from the small fishing dock where they were moored at Sisiman Bay, Bataan. At the North Dock of the Rock, bearded lieutenant commander John D. Bulkeley arrived, looking for all the world like a swashbuckling privateer. He and his crew picked up MacArthur and Jean. Together they made a quick circuit of the relatively calm waters of the bay, while the general determined how Jean might deal with a long voyage in the boat. Though she got queasy, she insisted she could make it. That sealed the deal. MacArthur forbade future sorties by any of Bulkeley’s PT squadron.

There were four PT-boats available. If all were utilized, they would be a force to be reckoned with should they encounter surface resistance in the form of Japanese warships, and more importantly, they could carry a large contingent of personnel. If MacArthur showed up in Australia, virtually alone, he would assume command of a staff of strangers, many of whom would likely consider him a leader who had deserted his troops, regardless of his having been ordered to do so. On the other hand, if he brought his key staff with him, two things would result. First he would be able to insert loyal subordinates into key positions within his new staff, men who had also cut and run from the Philippines. Second, every single one of them would take over knowing MacArthur had saved each from a brutal future. What better way to ensure loyalty, empathy, and unquestioning subservience in his new power base?

Eight days passed, during which time Java capitulated on March 8. There was virtually nothing of consequence left to defend beyond Australia except the Philippines and New Guinea, the latter being an Australian concern. On March 9, Roosevelt raised the departure issue again, and MacArthur set the date for March 15. However, back came a vexing message that a submarine was on its way, arriving on the 13th. Determined to leave on his own terms, MacArthur chose to be on his way before the submarine appeared. He and his entourage would depart on the 11th via torpedo boat, go by sea to Cagayan, Mindanao, then board B-17s at nearby Del Monte airport for Australia. Based on how many of the PT-boats got through, MacArthur would be able to demand a suitable number of planes for the effort. He radioed Lieutenant General George H. Brett, commander of U.S. Army Air Force assets in Australia, requesting three B-17s be readied for a ferry flight to Del Monte Field.12 No one in Washington was informed of this new plan in any detail.

Early on March 11, MacArthur’s chief of staff, Richard Sutherland, sent an order to General George requesting a reconnaissance flight of the waterways south of Corregidor as far as the Cuyo Islands, 250 miles south of the Rock. No explanation was given. Lieutenant Wilson Glover was selected to fly the mission, during which he spotted one Japanese cruiser southwest of Ambulong Island, as well as a destroyer off the northwest coast of Mindoro.13 The cruiser was well east of MacArthur’s intended route, but the destroyer could present a problem.

MacArthur summoned General Wainwright from Bataan the afternoon of the 11th. He arrived by boat, all skin and bones. MacArthur explained that he was leaving under protest, following orders from the president. He wanted Wainwright to make that known to the troops. Though MacArthur had sent a message to Washington that he intended to remain in overall command of the Philippines even after his departure, someone senior in authority had to stay on Corregidor, and someone else needed to run things over on the peninsula. He placed Wainwright in command on the Rock, allowing the 58-year-old lieutenant general to endure what otherwise would have been his own fate. Major General Edward King, also 58, was left in charge of the Bataan defense. Their wives and families had been evacuated the previous year along with military families stationed throughout the Philippines. If it came to it, these two flag officers were expendable.

Though Roosevelt had authorized the departure of MacArthur and no one else, General Marshall sent a follow-up communication adding the general’s wife and son. MacArthur ignored both messages. Instead, he assembled his entourage, planning to set sail at dusk. Included in the party were Jean, little Arthur, his nanny, and 16 members of his military staff, including Admiral Rockwell and generals Sutherland and George. None of the hospital nurses were permitted aboard any of the four PT-boats led by Bulkeley. Even MacArthur’s Filipino aide-de-camp, Colonel Carlos P. Rómulo, was denied an early exit. Just as had occurred at every Allied bastion, the more-senior leaders (with the notable exception of General Percival in Singapore) were abandoning the troops.

The account of what took place in the Philippines next would become the stuff of legend. The four PT-boats gathered just outside the small bay, then went single file through Corregidor’s minefield. Once clear, the squadron of skippers opened the throttles on all three Packard engines. Four thousand horsepower was unleashed on each of the boat’s three screws. Rooster tails rose behind the craft as they swept into rough seas and took up a diamond formation. MacArthur’s boat, PT-41, was sequestered at the rear, protected by the other three. Via prior agreement approved by MacArthur, the three “escorts” would engage any enemy that came at them while MacArthur’s PT-boat fled the scene. His staff knew they were all expendable if it meant ensuring the general’s survival.

The night was moonless, the swells high and whitecapped. The Packard engines, roaring in and out of synchronization, caused teeth-chattering vibrations. The boats bulled their way through swells, hulls slamming against whitecaps. Below decks, almost everyone became ill, the general included. Jean, who oddly seemed least affected, knelt beside MacArthur, rubbing his hands as his dry heaves continued unabated.

As the four craft approached Cabra and the Apo Islands, their engines were heard by the occupying Japanese. Bonfires sprang up along the coasts to signal that an attempt to break the blockade was underway. The formation turned westward until the islands were over the horizon, then swung south again, the seas more brutal than before. Salt spray billowed over the bow. Everyone above deck was soaked from head to toe. Soon the boats got separated. Hours were spent trying to regroup, such that reaching their first intended stop at Tagauayan was no longer possible before daylight. MacArthur’s boat and two others eventually anchored at an alternate island after dawn, three hours short of Tagauayan. The fourth had broken down with fouled fuel strainers. One of the boats barely made the inlet and was no longer fit for travel. The skippers discussed the situation with MacArthur and decided to depart in the afternoon rather than wait until dark.

Down to two boats, they were 15 minutes out when they encountered a Japanese cruiser, most likely the one observed earlier near Ambulong Island by the reconnaissance flight. But the Japanese Navy had not fitted their capital ships with radar. Due to high whitecapped seas, Japanese lookouts did not spot the small boats as they wheeled away and increased separation. Later, a destroyer came into view and it, too, was avoided. MacArthur may well have owed his life to Yamamoto, who did not push for the inclusion of on-board radar in his haste to build a powerful Navy.

As the two torpedo boats swept past the Negros Islands just after sundown, their Packard engines were again heard. The island’s occupiers must have thought the noise was from aircraft, since searchlights began scanning the skies.

Below deck, MacArthur was once again ill, with Jean comforting him at his side. Bulkeley and his skipper mate kept the boats running at top speed through the night. By dawn they had covered 560 total miles and made landfall, sighting the Del Monte pineapple plantation at 6:30 a.m. A half hour later, they rounded Cagayan Point and entered the bay. By now, MacArthur had recovered his sea legs and stood ramrod on the prow. Ashore at Cagayan, staff officer Colonel William Morse was among those awaiting the arrival. The image Morse beheld reminded him of Emanuel Leutze’s painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Once billeted in the guest lodge at the Del Monte plantation, MacArthur decided four B-17s would be needed to safely get his entourage to Australia. After squabbling over the request was resolved at Allied headquarters in Australia, four B-17s took off for Del Monte. One crashed off the Australian coast; two others turned back with engine problems. On the morning of the 13th, the lone remaining B-17 appeared on final approach at Del Monte Field. It made a less than smooth landing and taxied up, engines coughing, to where the general was waiting. MacArthur took one look at the young lieutenant who peered from the cockpit of the worn and battered plane and lost his temper. No way was he or anyone else boarding such a “dangerously decrepit” aircraft flown by “an inexperienced boy.” Not mentioned was the problem of flying through Japanese-controlled airspace in a lone aircraft. There was safety in numbers, and plans could be made to sacrifice one or more aircraft to save another. MacArthur sent a blistering radio message to Australia and Washington demanding “the three best planes in the United States or Hawaii.” No matter that word was out that MacArthur had reached Mindanao and Japanese sympathizers were everywhere. No matter that Japanese planes were seen daily in the skies looking for Del Monte Airfield. MacArthur was not leaving until transportation satisfied his ego and plan. It took until the 16th to finally launch three new B-17s for Del Monte. Two made it; one turned back with mechanical problems.

MacArthur’s entourage boarded that night and the planes took off for the 1,579-mile journey.22 They skirted Borneo, the Celebes, Java, Timor, and Bali, all now in Japanese hands. Though the planes slipped through unscathed, nothing in this odyssey came easy. As the planes approached Darwin, a radio message was received that the field was again under Japanese air attack. The B-17s diverted to Batchelor Field, 50 miles away. Upon his arrival that Monday, March 17, MacArthur made his oft-quoted pronouncement, “I came through, and I shall return.”

The men left on Bataan were not impressed. Instead they were hungry, tired, sick, and dispirited. They came up with pithy sayings, “I am going to the latrine, and I shall return.” Now they began to sense that all who remained were expendable.

At this point in time, the Japanese were able to free up some of the air assets that had been used or held in reserve for the Sumatra and Java campaigns. A slew of Betty bombers from the Takao Ku, originally out of Formosa, arrived at Clark on March 16, along with two squadrons from Saigon and Phnom Penh containing 85 new Ki 21-II Sally bombers. A dozen F1M Pete float planes needed to blockade Manila Harbor also arrived on seaplane tender Sanuki Maru. The noose was tightening.

The inter-island steamer Legaspi had brought many of the Allied troops to Bataan from the Manila piers, then made two dangerous resupply missions from Mindanao to Corregidor before being sunk on its third run. On Bataan, the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts had made the last cavalry charge in history on January 16, at Morong, then turned in their mounts. The remainder of the U.S. Army’s 250 cavalry horses were eventually slaughtered for food along with 48 pack mules. Included was General Wainwright’s prized jumper. Also slaughtered were the native water buffalo.

Soon the media touted MacArthur’s “I shall return” pledge. Upon learning of his departure to Australia, MacArthur was described by Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as a “fleeing general.” In Rome, Benito Mussolini called him a “coward.” The Japan Times and Advertiser accused him of being a “deserter who fled his post.”

General Honma learned of MacArthur’s departure and saw it as an opportunity. He ordered his planes to drop beer cans adorned with ribbons containing an ultimatum to Wainwright to accept “honorable defeat” and surrender by noon, March 22. By now, less than a handful of fighter aircraft remained in American hands. One patched up P-40 flew a recon mission out of Bataan Field and reported increasing troop movement near the front lines on Bataan. Wainwright rejected the ultimatum.

On the 22nd, Honma fulfilled his threat, beginning with a widespread artillery bombardment. The salvos continued day and night.

In Washington, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall decided that the best counter to negative propaganda surrounding the impending loss of the Philippines was to take the initiative in the media. He suggested MacArthur receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Dwight Eisenhower, who had served seven years under MacArthur and was now on Marshall’s staff, opposed the award. Marshall sent the recommendation on to Roosevelt anyway. It must have come as a painful decision on the part of Roosevelt, who was well aware that MacArthur’s affiliation was hardcore Republican, but decide he did, in favor of the award. The citation read, for “gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” and for “utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment.” Although true that MacArthur had spent more than two months along with everyone else on Corregidor during the height of the bombing, his personal level of heroism was not at issue. Propaganda was. Thus, shortly after fleeing his command and abandoning his troops to their fate, MacArthur was awarded the medal on March 26, 1942, at a dinner hosted by the Australian prime minister in Canberra.

There can be little doubt regarding MacArthur’s bravery, but bravery is tested when challenges arise and there is little time to consider the consequences. With courage, there is time to dwell on one’s impending fate. Most medals are given out for bravery, not so many for courage. Should there be more acknowledgment for courage, in this instance for staying to the end? In MacArthur’s case, courage seems to have been in short supply, and that is the way his men on Bataan interpreted it.

While the dinner affair was underway, three more B-17s arrived at Del Monte to gather up President Quezon, his family and aides, all of whom had finally arrived there via submarine, steamer and patrol boat. When the planes took to the air for Australia, the Philippines became officially leaderless.

On April 1, the daily artillery barrage on Corregidor and Bataan by the Japanese increased in intensity, augmented by the air arm, which bombed and strafed. Up until now, the sight of American planes mixing it up with the Japanese had given the men on the ground a sense of encouragement. The defenders still had an air force. But now, friendly planes overhead were a rare sight, and much as had happened in Malaya, Singapore and Sumatra, the demoralizing effect was pronounced.

The next big offensive began on Good Friday, April 3, at 10:00 a.m., starting with a five-hour artillery barrage on Bataan. Nearly 150 sorties by Japanese bombers and fighters pounded the front lines. A black pall of smoke blew over the peninsula as bamboo and cogon thickets ignited. The Japanese, augmented by troops newly arrived from Singapore, surged ahead. American and Filipino forces drew back from the Bagac-Orion line, while Japanese fighters swooped in to strafe. The defenders were down to two P-40s, which served only to harass the Japanese. Then Japanese tanks and infantry of the newly arrived 4th Division moved forward. As a soot-shrouded sun dipped to the horizon, Japanese forces churned down the eastern side of the Bataan peninsula nearly to the base of Mount Samat. To the south of the mount rose Mariveles Volcano. Beyond it beckoned Corregidor and the sea.

MacArthur, upon learning that surrender was being contemplated, sent a message to General Wainwright announcing, “I am utterly opposed under any circumstances or conditions to the ultimate capitulation of this command. If food fails, you will prepare and execute an attack upon the enemy.” President Roosevelt agreed with MacArthur and issued his own “no surrender” orders.

Wainwright forwarded the orders to Major General King on April 4. One can only imagine what thoughts went through the two generals’ minds upon reading the messages from these two leaders who had written them off as expendable.

The Bataan defenders continued to fight and fall back, but by April 8 it was clear that the show was nearly over. Ammunition and fuel dumps were blown up, including the British ammunition vessel Yu Sang, which had been taken over by the U.S. Navy. The last remaining P-40 was flown out by Lieutenant Joseph H. Moore, while the last P-35A departed in the hands of Captain O.L. Lunde, with another pilot squeezed into the baggage compartment. Men began to flee to Corregidor via any means possible. A number began to swim the three miles to the island. Friendly skiffs went about plucking them from the water.

Though MacArthur forbade it, General King crossed the lines to surrender on April 9, 1942. At 12:30 p.m., King handed over his pistol to Colonel Motoo Nakayama, General Honma’s senior operations officer.33 King and 12,000 fellow Americans plus 67,500 Filipinos began stacking their arms. They represented the largest force in American military history to succumb to an enemy.

During the final days of the Bataan defense, over 2,000 men made their way to the Rock, where Wainwright was determined to fight on. With 13,000 men bunkered inside the tunnels and caves, they represented a force to be reckoned with.

With the fall of Bataan, General Honma was presented with a new problem: prisoners of war. In spite of the assurance given by Colonel Nakayama to General King that “the Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians,” the prisoners were assembled on Bataan, then marched north without food or water in intense heat toward San Fernando, 66 miles north. Those who fell out of formation were bayoneted, beheaded, or shot. For the first five days, no food or water was provided by the Japanese. The only sustenance received during that period was whatever was secretly tossed by local Filipinos who at great peril took pity on the men as they staggered through the hamlets. On the sixth day, one cupful of rice was given to each of the prisoners. Water was scrounged from ditches and buffalo wallows. The trek took nine days, and Japanese guards took every opportunity to take vengeance on any prisoner who gave them the slightest provocation. On the ninth day, the men were crammed into railroad cars, 100 to a coach. Men fainted from the heat and lack of air and water. Many who had struggled through the march now died. By the time the survivors reached the prison at Camp O’Donnell, over 8,000 American and Filipino prisoners had perished. These deaths represented only the beginning.

Tobruk: The Desert Rats Defy Rommel 1941

Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911 meant that Mussolini already had one possession in North Africa. By the outbreak of the Second World War, some 150,000 Italian colonists lived there. So when the British rejected Hitler’s peace overtures, Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, which had been in British hands since 1882. He ordered Marshal Graziani to launch an offensive eastwards against the British troops in Egypt, who were under the command of General Sir Archibald Wavell. On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army took the small border port of Sollum. They then advanced a further fifty miles into Egypt and occupied the British base at Sidi Barrani on 16 September. Six weeks later the British Western Desert Force under Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor started a ‘five day raid’ which pushed the Italians back across the border on 10 December. Reinforced by the Australians, the Western Desert Force continued the advance and took the small port of Tobruk in northeast Libya on 21 January 1941. By the time the Italians had surrendered, on 7 February, they had been driven back for a distance of 500 miles by the British. Over 130,000 Italian prisoners had been taken, along with 400 tanks and 1,290 guns. Meeting no further resistance, the Western Desert Force could have gone on to take Tripoli, but their supply lines were already over-stretched and British prime minister Winston Churchill wanted to divert men and resources to Greece.

Hitler came to Mussolini’s aid. On 6 February, General Erwin Rommel, who had spearheaded the Panzer drive to the Channel, was sent with his Afrika Korps to Tripoli. He attacked El Agheila on 24 March, capturing O’Connor and throwing the British column back in the direction from which it had come. However, Wavell decided to hold Tobruk while the rest of the British force retreated into Egypt to regroup. As Tobruk had fallen so effortlessly on 21 January, its fortifications were largely intact. Its strongpoints, which were set out in alternating rows, were protected by concrete walls that were three feet thick. These offered protection against 15cm guns, the heaviest the Afrika Korps had at the time. It had an anti-tank ditch that was covered in camouflaged planks and sand and the perimeter defences described an arc that ran for twenty-eight miles around the port and reached a further nine miles inland. This was to be defended by the 9th Australian Division, reinforced by a brigade of the 7th, and the Sikhs of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. Major-General Leslie Morshead, commander of the 9th, told his men: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we have to get out, we will fight our way out. No surrender and no retreat.’

Artillery support was supplied by the Australian Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery. Although their twenty-five-pounder field guns were not designed as anti-tank weapons, they were very effective against Rommel’s Panzers, bearing in mind that the standard anti-tank gun was the two-pounder. Tobruk was also defended by anti-aircraft batteries with seventy-five guns between them. Four Hurricanes were stationed there in the early days of the siege, but these were either shot down or withdrawn.

On 10 April, Rommel reached Tobruk and sent a motorised detachment to storm the town, but it was repulsed by heavy gunfire which killed its commander. On the night of 13 April, an infantry battalion of the Afrika Korps’ 5th Light Division made its way through a minefield and across the anti-tank ditch. A counterattack destroyed the infantry battalion and Jack Edmondson, an Australian defender who went on fighting even though he was mortally wounded, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile elements of the Afrika Korps had bypassed Tobruk and had reached the Egyptian border. From now on, the 22,000 men at Tobruk would have to be supplied by sea.

This was a dangerous business because the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority. However, the anti-aircraft gunners managed to keep the harbour open. The heavy batteries were armed with British 3.7-inch guns, which produced shrapnel, while light anti-aircraft batteries used Bofors 40mm guns backed up by captured Italian 20mm and 40mm Breda guns, which fired tracer shells that exploded on impact. Between them, they would throw up a barrage at a predetermined height. The German pilots got wise to this, however, and started hanging back to see what height the barrage had been fixed at before starting their bombing runs. The barrage was then spread more thinly, and over varying heights, to make it more difficult to penetrate. The Luftwaffe’s response was to began dive-bombing the sites of the heavy guns, so the light anti-aircraft batteries with their rapid-fire tracers were moved in closer as protection.

Just before dawn on 14 April the Panzers attacked for the first time. They came on the left of the road that led south to El Adem. Thirty-eight tanks broke through the two lines of the zig-zagged perimeter defences and headed for the town. Three miles on they hit the second line of defence – the Blue Line. There they met point blank fire from British twenty-five-pounders. The Germans’ artillery support and machine-gunners had been held up by the Australian infantry who stayed in position when the tanks broke through. In the face of the twenty-five-pounders, the Panzers had no choice but to retreat. As they did so, British tanks and Australian anti-tank guns pummelled their flanks. The routed Germans left seventeen tanks behind. Twelve aircraft had been shot down, 110 men killed and 254 were captured. It was the first time that Hitler’s Panzers had tasted defeat.

Rommel realised that Tobruk could only be taken with an all-out attack, but he lacked the resources. Even the 15th Panzer Division, which was on its way, had suffered significant losses when the convoy carrying it was attacked on its way to Libya. By that time operations in the Balkans, and afterwards the Soviet Union, had starved Rommel of the tanks and men he needed for the capture of Tobruk. This small port later became the setting for the longest siege in British history.

Rommel bided his time for the next two weeks, bringing up more forces. By the end of the month he had some 400 German and Italian tanks at his disposal, against the defenders’ thirty-one. On the evening of 30 April, he threw his men at Hill 209, known as Ras el Medauur, which was near the water tower on the southwest corner of the perimeter. Twenty-two Stukas began dive-bombing the Australian positions at 19.15 hours and an artillery barrage opened up at 20.00. This cut the telephone lines and neutralized the front-line defences.

Under the cover of the bombardment, the Germans blew gaps in the wire and cleared paths through the minefield. By 21.15 a German machine-gun battalion, positioned a mile inside the perimeter, opened fire on the reserve company. The Australians began a counterattack, but with poor communication, and they could not find the beleaguered perimeter posts in the darkness. By the following morning it was clear that the Germans had punched a hole through the outer defences that was a mile and a half wide. They captured seven perimeter posts and took more than a hundred prisoners. However, the Australians had put up such a determined resistance that they had taken the momentum out of the German attack.

Soon after 08.00 the Germans advanced again with forty tanks, but they were stopped by a mine-field. Heavy shelling forced them to retreat, although a dust storm covered their withdrawal. Rommel tried to draw in the Allied armour by using a diversionary tactic with some twenty tanks, but Morshead was reluctant to commit his own tanks. He preferred to let mines and artillery shells do their work before risking his precious armoured reserve. Repeated air attacks failed to knock out the Allied artillery and by 09.00 the German attack had petered out.

As they could make no further progress in a forwards direction, Rommel’s Panzers and their infantry support attacked the posts at either side of the mouth of the German bridgehead. One of them fell by noon, but the heavy shelling prevented the Panzers from coordinating their efforts with their supporting infantry. Consequently, their attempts to take the other post failed. However, twenty-five light Panzers got beyond the perimeter posts and ran around the southern edge of the minefield. They were shelled all the way but by 09.15 they had reached Post R12, three miles east of Hill 209. There they were halted by fourteen cruiser tanks. Rommel then sent in another nine tanks. A sporadic tank battle broke out, but in spite of their superior numbers the Panzers were forced to withdraw after three of them had been lost.

The Germans tanks refuelled and began a new attack that afternoon. They were once more met by accurate British shelling. The Australians in the perimeter posts, armed only with Bren guns and rifles, put up fierce resistance. Two heavy Panzers tried to bombard one post into surrender from a range of seventy-five yards, but the Germans were repeatedly beaten back. By dusk half the defenders were wounded. The Germans attacked again in the twilight with tanks and flame-throwers and they took the post at 19.30. A second post fell on the following morning.

Having abandoned any attempt to drive forward directly onto the harbour, Rommel continued to push on inside the perimeter in the southeast until the bridgehead cleared the southern minefield. But he was stopped that evening by a counterattack against Hill 209.Impeded by the fading light and the dust kicked up by enemy shelling, the Australians advanced for more than a mile before they met resistance from anti-tank and machine-gun emplacements. By then they had lost the cover of their artillery barrage. Lacking the machine-guns they needed, the men withdrew. They had not retaken Hill 209, but they had had forced the enemy onto the defensive and had prevented the Germans from skirting around a vital minefield.

The German advance was halted by a sandstorm on 2 May, giving the defenders time to lay new minefields, bring up fresh infantry and strengthen their positions. The artillery continued to pummel the German positions and the Germans did not resume their offensive when the storm cleared next day. The garrison had lost just five tanks, while out of the eighty-one German tanks that Rommel had started with there were only thirty-five left in action. Of the forty-six that had been lost, however, only twelve had been completely destroyed. However, the Panzers had suffered their second defeat and their morale was shaken. On the other hand, the Germans had made a breach in the de-fences and had held a large salient.

Morshead planned to do something about that. He would send two battalions to attack the shoulders of the salient, retake the lost posts and cut off the enemy spearhead. At the same time, a third battalion would make deep raids into enemy territory. The problem was that the Germans held Hill 209 so they could watch as the Australians assembled. This gave them ample warning of the attack. After dark the Australians advanced under an artillery barrage and the Germans fought back with heavy machine-gun fire. Flares lit up the sky and German mortar and artillery fire brought the Australian advance on the northern flank to a standstill. On the southern flank, they retook one post but attacked another without success. The other attacks pushed the German outposts back by more than half a mile. The Germans had lost 1,700 men, compared to the garrisons’ casualties of 797 – fifty-nine killed, 355 wounded and 383 missing. However, the German High Command grew alarmed at the losses and ordered Rommel not to attack again.

Morshead was jubilant. ‘The actions before Tobruk in April and May are the first in which armoured formations of the German Army have been defied and defeated,’ he said.

Churchill was also impressed. He sent a telegram which read: ‘The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.’

Wavell’s message to Morshead struck a more practical note. It read: ‘Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on Egypt and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive. You could NOT repeat NOT be doing better service.’

The German radio propagandist William Joyce – known as in Britain as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ because of his sneering voice – ignored the problems that Rommel was having. He crowed that the garrison were caught ‘like rats in a trap’. A German newspaper then dubbed the British defenders the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, an insult they quickly embraced, calling themselves the ‘Desert Rats’.

Tobruk was psychologically important from the Allied point of view, because it showed, for the first time, that the Germans could be stopped. The Panzers were not invincible. The German Blitzkrieg could defeated by minefields and artillery fire and infantry who stood their ground. Even the terror-bombers could be thwarted by dedicated anti-aircraft gunners. It also added a vital fillip to British prestige in the Arab world. Strategically, Rommel would have rolled on through Egypt if Tobruk had fallen. He would have taken the Suez Canal and the oilfields in the Persian Gulf and cut the British Empire in two. As it was, Britain was given time to recover from the disasters of Greece and Crete. The British forces could regroup in Egypt, while fresh American aid arrived via Britain.

The defence of Tobruk also kept Turkey – a German ally in the First World War – out of the war. Accordingly, Hitler was prevented from using Turkey as a southern springboard for his attack on the Soviet Union, which delayed him by at least a month. Because winter is considered to be Russia’s greatest general, this may have been crucial.

The greatest measure of the defenders of Tobruk’s success was the fact that it took three battalions of Rommel’s best troops and four Italian divisions to hold the salient around Hill 209. Morshead capitalised on this by maintaining a strategy of aggressive night patrolling in order to dominate no man’s land and undermine the enemy’s morale. In the meantime, the British maintained their harassing attacks on Rommel’s forces on the Egyptian frontier, even though they were short of tanks. Their aim was to keep him from regrouping his whole force and turning it on Tobruk.

After the evacuation of Greece, fifty tanks were diverted to Egypt. Wavell quickly organised Operation Brevity in order to relieve Tobruk. On 15 May 1941 the British captured the Halfaya Pass on the way to Sollum. But they were forced to withdraw on 17 May and the Germans retook the pass.

On the night of 15 May, the Germans launched an attack on three perimeter posts at Tobruk. It was thought that all three were lost, but when one was recaptured it was found that the other two had held out although they were desperately short of ammunition. Once they were resupplied, the Australians discovered that they were ‘on a roll’ and so they tried to recapture more of their outposts. Supporting fire came from thirty-nine British guns and a smoke screen was laid in order that machine-gunners from the Northumberland Fusiliers could sweep into the disputed area without being observed from Hill 209. The Germans laid their own smoke screen and barrage, however, and the British tanks lost their way in the dust and smoke. Even so, the Australian infantry carried on alone through intense fire in an attempt to take two posts. Unfortunately, the Germans were too well established and they not only held the concrete posts but also the intermediate positions that were able to provide flanking fire. At that point the Australians withdrew.

By June the two sides were consolidating their defensive positions. In the salient, the Germans had fallen back to a defensive line that was behind the positions they held on 3 May. By 26 June the Australians had been able to advance their line by 1,000 yards, reducing its length from over five miles to under four. This allowed the Australians to take one battalion out of the line and place it on reserve. On the other hand, the German line was more closely packed and the Germans had also mined no man’s land, preventing any further Australian advances.

Wavell made a second attempt to relieve Tobruk, starting on 15 June. When this was beaten back by the 15th Panzer Division, General Sir Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell as commander-in-chief in the Middle East on 1 July.

The Australians had held out in Tobruk for over three months. Factors such as heat, dust, flies, sand and poor food were affecting fighting ability and the Australian government asked that they be withdrawn. The bulk of the troops were evacuated in the late summer and replaced by the British 17th Division under Major-General Scobie. They were supported by the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade and a Czechoslovakian battalion. However, some Australians stayed on with the original British forces.

While Rommel planned a new attack, General Auchinleck began organising Operation Crusader, a third attempt to relieve Tobruk, forming the 8th Army under General Sir Alan Cunningham. Cunningham’s plan was to send XXX Corps across the Libyan border to the south and deploy it at a place called Gabr Saleh. He hoped that Rommel and his Panzers would seize the opportunity for a tank battle because he believed that the better equipped and more numerous British and South African forces would win. Meanwhile, XIII Corps would overrun the frontier positions on the coast and push up the coast road towards Tobruk while Rommel was being crushed in the desert. The danger was that there would be a large gap between the two columns so the British would be vulnerable. Another column was drawn up between them, therefore, but it drew its strength from XXX Corps, thereby considerably weakening the force that was intended to take on Rommel.

Crusader got underway in torrential rain on 18 November. Unfortunately Rommel had plans of his own. Because he was making ready to take Tobruk, he kept his armour around Gambut on the coast road instead of moving to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh. Worse yet was to befall Cunningham. The Eighth Army’s operational plans fell into enemy hands after being brought to the front by a careless British officer. Because Rommel failed to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh, the British pressed on. On 19 November, however, fifty of their new Crusader tanks were destroyed when they tried to take Bir el Gubi to the south of Tobruk. Another column pushed on towards Tobruk, but it was met by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh, who mounted a counterattack which destroyed much of their armour. Rommel could have wiped out the whole of XXX Corps if he had followed up on the following day. Instead, he took a gamble. With a hundred tanks he made a dash across the desert to the Egyptian border with the intention of cutting off the entire Eighth Army and attacking it from the rear.

The reverses took a terrible toll on Cunningham, who wanted to withdraw. Auchinleck urged him on in the belief that Rommel’s bold move was an act of desperation. However, the strain was too much for Cunningham and on 26 November Auchinleck had to replace him with his own deputy chief of staff, Major-General Neil Methuen Ritchie. It was now Auchinleck who was really in command.

In a letter home, Rommel described his ‘dash to the wire’ as a great success. In fact, he had made little impression on the 4th Indian Division holding the rear, nor did he deprive Eighth Army of its supplies. Worse, his radio had broken down and he had left his Panzer group without orders for four days.

While XXX Corps had been decimated to the south, XIII Corps had been given an easier time of it while they were running along the coast road. The New Zealand Division broke through and on 25 November Scobie received a telegram telling him that the New Zealanders would make another attack on Sidi Rezegh on the following day. At the same time, the garrison was to attempt to break out. They did this in the midst of fierce fighting. At 13.00 hours they saw tanks on the horizon and then suddenly three red rockets burst in the sky. It was the 8th Army’s recognition signal. Tobruk had been relieved at last. But not for long. In Rommel’s absence, the 21st Panzer Division, which had been on the Egyptian border, was ordered to retreat. Rommel confirmed this order when he reappeared at his headquarters on the 27th. A confused battle followed in which the New Zealand Division was cut in two, with one half being sent back to Tobruk. In the mêlée, the commander of the 21st Panzer Division, General von Ravenstein, was captured.

Meanwhile, Auchinleck reinforced and reorganised XXX Corps and catapulted it back into battle. Rommel now only had a few tanks left so he withdrew his forces when he was told that he was not going to be resupplied until the latter part of December. He then attacked Tobruk from the east on 5 December. On the following day, a final counterattack failed and he ordered a general retreat, leaving behind an Italian division with orders to hold out as long as possible. Short of food and ammunition, it surrendered on 17 January.

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 242 days from 10 April to 7 December 1941, 55 days longer than the siege of Mafeking in the Boer War. It was the first defeat of German land forces in the Second World War.

Although the British managed to push Rommel 300 miles down the coast road he rallied at Gazala, in a counterattack that sent the British into full retreat. In June 1942, he finally captured Tobruk, which fell to the British again on 13 November 1942 after General Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein.

IJN Submarines – East Coast Australia

In the days after the Sydney raid, the Australian Department of Information monitored Japanese broadcasts around the clock, but picked up no public broadcast relating to the Sydney attack until 5 June.

The Imperial Navy made an attack on Sydney Harbour with midget submarines on 31 May. We have succeeded in entering the harbour and sinking one warship. The three midget submarines which took part in this operation have not reported back.

Although MacArthur’s headquarters issued a brief statement on 1 June, the first detailed reports of the raid came from American and British broadcasts. The Sydney press was particularly outraged when the initial news came from Melbourne, not Sydney. When the Minister for the Navy came under fierce fire in the House of Representatives for not allowing Sydney to release the news, Mr Makin replied: “It was thought undesirable to make an earlier announcement because enemy ships might still have been in the vicinity.”

In response to the Japanese raid on Sydney, the Deputy Prime Minister, Francis Forde, made the following speech in Parliament:

The public should not complacently count on this as the last attack in these waters. The attempted raid brings the war much nearer to the industrial heart of Australia. It should clearly indicate the absolute necessity for eternal vigilance by all services. It should act as a new stimulus to the whole of the people to co-operate wholeheartedly on a complete war effort.

Forde’s words were both true and prophetic. On 3 June, Sasaki brought I-21 to the surface 40 miles off Sydney and attacked the Australian steamer Age with gunfire. Unarmed, the steamer ran for safety and arrived in Newcastle the following day without further incident.

At 11:30 pm, soon after the Age was attacked, I-24 sank the Australian coaster, Iron Chieftain, which was on passage from Newcastle to Whyalla. Iron Chieftain had sailed from Newcastle at 10:00 pm but was only able to make good six knots against the heavy seas. Twenty seven miles from Newcastle Harbour, the submarine surfaced and fired a torpedo at the coaster. Laden with coke, Iron Chieftain sank in five minutes, taking with her 12 crew including the master and third mate who were last seen on the bridge.

One of the survivors, Naval gunner Cyril Sheraton, gave the following account of the Iron Chieftan attack in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I was in my pyjamas and watch coat beside my gun when the torpedo struck. I tried to get my gun into action but did not have a chance. The captain and third mate were on the bridge and were watching the submarine for five or six minutes before the skipper shouted “Hard a’starboard”. The torpedo struck before the ship could swing. I could see the submarine 200 yards away on the port side. As the ship sank under me, I was dragged onto a raft. After the ship sank, the submarine circled our raft and we thought that we might be machine-gunned so we laid still. The submarine finally left and we drifted in the darkness.

When news of the Iron Chieftain’s sinking reached Sydney, Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould closed the ports of Sydney and Newcastle to outward bound shipping, and ships at sea were warned to “zigzag”. The anti-submarine vessel Bingera sailed from Sydney to search for survivors and picked up some of the crew, including Sheraton. Another 25 crewmen were found 30 hours later after rowing their open boat ashore.

With Second Officer Brady in charge, the lifeboat picked up as many men as could be seen in the water. When no more survivors could be found, they began to row through the heavy swell, taking turns at the oars to keep warm. After some hours the sea abated and conditions became easier. The men began singing to boost their morale, but it was a dismal attempt and ceased after a while. They continued to row in silence. Thirty hours later they arrived about a mile off The Entrance, north of Sydney. Unfamiliar with the area, Brady fired distress flares into the sky, but local fishermen did not understand their meaning. When help failed to arrive, the men rowed slowly ashore, weary, drenched and cold. The exhausted Second Officer was reluctant to surrender his charge to the police and had to be threatened with violence before he would consent to go to bed and warm up.

At dawn on 4 June, six hours after Iron Chieftain was sunk, I-27, en route to Tasmanian waters, surfaced and attacked the Australian steamer Barwon 30 miles off Gabo Island. The submarine commenced the attack with gunfire, followed by a torpedo, which exploded prematurely alongside the steamer. Fragments of metal landed on the ship but there was no damage or casualties. Barwon was able to escape by outrunning her attacker.

At 4:45 pm on the same day, I-27 torpedoed the Australian ship Iron Crown, laden with manganese ore and bound for Newcastle. Iron Crown went down in one minute, taking with her 37 crew, including the captain. The submarine was forced to crash dive when an Australian Hudson aircraft suddenly appeared over the horizon.

Australian naval authorities became exceedingly jittery about the increasing Japanese submarine activity and frequent molesting of Allied shipping. On 4 June the Australian Naval Board decided to suspend all merchant sailings from eastern and southern Australian ports. However, merchant vessels already at sea before the Naval Board directive continued to fall victim to elements of the Third Submarine Company. In the absence of enemy warships, the Japanese naval authorities considered merchant vessels legitimate targets.

It was the Japanese Navy’s policy to limit the number of torpedoes that a submarine commander could fire at a particular target. Merchant ships and destroyers were allotted only one torpedo, cruisers warranted three, and battleships and aircraft carriers were allotted maximum torpedo firepower. Since this policy reduced the chances of sinking a merchant ship, Captain Sasaki ordered his submarine force to resort to surface gunfire attacks in an effort to economise on torpedoes.

While Sasaki’s submarine force waged its campaign of destruction, Allied aircraft continued to scour the sea in search of the submarine raiders. During this period there were many reported sightings of periscopes. However, to confuse the enemy, Sasaki’s force released decoy periscopes along Australia’s east coast. These decoys were made of long bamboo sticks, painted black, at the top of which were attached mirrors that would glint in the sunlight. Below the surface were two sake bottles lashed to the decoy periscope. The glass bottles were half-filled with sand and half-filled with diesel oil. The weight of the sand would cause the bamboo stick to float upright in the water, and the oil was to convince the enemy of a successful attack when it floated to the surface once the bottles shattered following a bomb or depth charge attack.

One of these decoy periscopes was responsible for a reported sighting by a Dutch aircraft eight miles south-east of Sydney on the morning of 6 June. The aircraft attacked and reported damaging a submarine at periscope depth after thick diesel oil was seen on the surface.

A decoy periscope was later recovered offshore by a commercial fisherman who turned it over to Muirhead-Gould’s staff for examination.

Also on 6 June, 22-year-old Flight Lieutenant G. J. Hitchcock taxied his Lockheed Hudson bomber across the tarmac at Williamtown, north of Newcastle, and, with only a scratch crew, took off to search for enemy submarines. The base medical officer had been invited to join the flight with the promise that Hitchcock would sink a submarine. Hitchcock’s promise almost became a reality.

Flying at 2,000 feet, the air gunner, Flight Sergeant A. T. Morton, sighted a periscope 80 miles east of Sydney. Hitchcock descended abruptly to 500 feet and commenced his attack. The Hudson accidentally dropped its entire bomb load, which fell astern of the periscope. Hitchcock recalled that the aircraft received an almighty thump from behind when the bombs exploded. The Hudson circled the area for half an hour. While bubbles were seen rising to the surface, there was no oil. Hitchcock considered his attack was unsuccessful, but newspaper accounts thought otherwise, crediting the Hudson with “the first Australian killing”. Hitchcock told the author that the newspaper accounts had the effect of lifting morale and he and his crew became temporarily famous.

In the days that followed the Sydney Harbour attack, residents had begun to settle back into their normal daily routines. However, they were not without foreboding as they read press reports of submarine attacks on merchant shipping along the coast.

Sydney’s apprehensive mood turned to panic when Sasaki’s submarine force interrupted their campaign against Allied shipping and turned their attention to frightening the civil population. On 8 June, shortly after midnight, I-24 surfaced 12 miles off the coast of Sydney and fired 10 high explosive shells.

The examination vessel HMAS Adele, which was responsible for challenging suspicious vessels attempting to enter harbour, sighted the gunfire flashes out to sea, as did the Outer South Head army battery, which probed the sea with searchlights. Five minutes later the air raid alarm was sounded and city and coastal navigation lights were temporarily extinguished. The submarine submerged before the coastal defences could return fire.

There were no major casualties reported from this unexpected shelling, although one resident – a refugee from Nazi Germany – was terrified when a shell crashed though his bedroom wall. According to newspaper accounts, the man leapt out of bed, fracturing his ankle, and the shell failed to explode.

The remaining shells exploded in the suburbs of Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill, shattering windows and causing only superficial damage. One shell exploded harmlessly in Manion Avenue, Rose Bay, where a large crater was formed in the roadway.

The main objective of the shellfire was to destroy the Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, the Japanese also wanted to frighten the population. Although they failed in their first objective, they succeeded in the second beyond their expectations.

During the shelling, panic broke out when confused residents ran screaming into the streets thinking the air raid siren meant that Sydney was under attack by enemy aircraft. Urban Australians did not react very favourably when, later that morning, harbour front and other wealthy Eastern Suburb residents put their houses up for sale and fled to the Blue Mountains and even further inland, fearing a Japanese invasion at any moment.

A steady trickle of harbourside residents had been leaving Sydney following the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour more than a week earlier; but with the shelling of the Eastern Suburbs, the trickle increased to a frenzied stream of panicky citizens. When every house, boarding house and hotel in the Blue Mountains was crammed, these “escapees” retreated further inland to Orange in the central-west of New South Wales. Some people fled from Sydney to the Hunter Valley – to towns like Singleton and Muswellbroook – but they were turned away when every available accommodation space had been taken. This is a good indication of how serious the belief was that Australia would be invaded by the “Yellow Peril”.

Compared with Londoners during the Blitz, these Australians behaved with less than Churchillian courage. Only after the war was over did many of them sheepishly return, some buying back their houses at vastly inflated prices.

Scenting an opportunity, poverty-stricken European refugees, many of them Jewish émigrés who had weathered far greater ordeals in Europe, quickly moved into the area. They shrewdly bought up the vacated real-estate at absurdly deflated prices and, after the war, many became millionaires overnight. One Eastern Suburbs real estate agent, Mr Karl Malouf, told the author that the exodus of the rich had been extensive. He remembers the harbourside suburbs of Vaucluse and Bellevue Hill were a forest of “For Sale signs.” Malouf‘s company went on to become one of Sydney’s best known realtors.

Just over two hours after I-24 shelled Sydney, I-21 surfaced three miles off Newcastle. The submarine fired 20 star shells over the industrial heart of the city, followed by six high explosive shells, only three of which exploded. Close examination of the unexploded shells later that day revealed that they had been manufactured in England in 1914! The nose sections were very rough, with some fuses bent and damaged, which explained why the majority of shells failed to explode.

The main Japanese target at Newcastle was the BHP steelworks. As with Sydney, however, the shells landed over a wide area, one shell exploding on the road behind Fort Scratchley, a coastal Army battery, and another some distance away near Nobby’s Head. Two star shells also exploded above the corvette Whyalla, which had recently arrived in Newcastle after searching for enemy submarines off the coast.

Fort Scratchley, overlooking Newcastle Harbour, was originally built during the Russian scare of the nineteenth century and was modified and reactivated for World War II. In the early hours of the morning, the duty sergeant at the Fort reported to the searchlight commander, Captain W. J. Harvey, that he could see flares in the sky and that something unusual appeared to be happening. Gun flashes were then seen and the searchlights probed the sea. At the extreme range of the searchlights, Gunner Colin Curie reported sighting a submarine. The battery commander, Captain Walter Watson, put the battery on alert and the guns were loaded ready to fire. Suddenly, Watson saw a gun flash and cried “Duck!” The shell exploded in Parnell Place, narrowly missing the observation post. Watson telephoned fire command for permission to open fire and, when he received no reply, opened fire anyway. The telephonist then reported, “Fire command says engage when ready, Sir!” Watson retorted, “Tell them I bloody-well have!” He then gave ranging corrections to his gunners and fired a second salvo.

The pilot steamer Birubi was at sea off Nobby’s Head when the shelling began. In her haste to run for the harbour entrance and safety, the pilot vessel emitted huge clouds of thick black smoke, which obscured Watson’s field of vision and he was unable to correct the range of fire. Sasaki submerged before Fort Scratchley could fire a third salvo. The pilot vessel later reported that the first salvo had fallen short of the submarine and the second had overshot.

Some remarkable escapes were made from the Newcastle shelling. Residents had heard an air raid siren shortly after midnight, followed by the “All Clear”, which actually signified the end of the shelling attack on Sydney. When, an hour later, firing commenced on Newcastle, residents were confused and caught unaware.

In Parnell Place, Mrs Wilson had decided to evacuate her two young children from their home above a shop: “I thought it was only air raid drill or practice. Then I realised it wasn’t… The shells were screaming across. The worst part was not knowing where they were going to hit.”

Scooping her two children from their bed, Mrs Wilson was making her way downstairs when a shell exploded on the road outside. It was not until daylight that the young mother realised how close she and her children had come to death. She discovered shrapnel from the blast had torn through a wire mattress base where the children had been sleeping and, when she rolled back the mattress, a huge, gaping hole was revealed in the wall.

There were only two casualties reported from the Newcastle shelling, both victims of shrapnel from the blast in Parnell Place. Bombardier Stan Newton had been on his way to Fort Scratchley when he was knocked unconscious by a piece of shrapnel that struck him in the forehead. Regaining consciousness, he was greeted by a surprised air raid warden. Newton then ran on to the Fort to take up his position, unaware the shrapnel was still lodged in his head.

Meanwhile, naval authorities ordered a total blackout of the Newcastle and Sydney coastal areas. HMAS Whyalla and the American destroyer Perkins were ordered to escort eight merchant ships from Newcastle to Melbourne.

Submarine bombardment of enemy cities was employed by the Japanese only on limited occasions. From the time of surfacing, often over a minute passed before the submarines could commence firing. Ranges had to be estimated from charts, and to score a direct hit was extremely difficult. The rangefinders they used were portable and inaccurate, making the whole operation a rather clumsy exercise. Also, only 20 shells could be stored at one time in the ammunition locker on the upper deck. If more ammunition was required, it had to be brought up from below, thus creating a dangerous situation, especially if the submarine had to submerge in a hurry.

After the shelling of Sydney and Newcastle, I-24 and I-21 turned their attention back to terrorising merchant ships off the coast. At 1:00 am on 9 June, I-24 pursued and shelled the British merchant ship Orestes 90 miles south of Sydney. Steaming independently from Sydney to Melbourne, Orestes presented a prime target for I-24, which chased the merchantman for five hours. During the running battle, Orestes suffered several direct hits, resulting in a large fire. Believing the merchant vessel was doomed, I-24 broke off the attack; but Orestes succeeded in extinguishing the fire and made Melbourne safely the next day.

Not so fortunate was the Panamanian vessel Guatemala. At 1:15 am on 12 June, I-24 intercepted and successfully sank the merchant ship 40 miles from Sydney. Guatemala had left Newcastle in the convoy escorted by Perkins and Whyalla, but soon found herself straggling behind the convoy. The Norwegian master, Captain A. G. Bang, heard two gunshots to starboard but saw nothing. A few minutes later, the second officer saw the track of a torpedo, which struck the ship before he could take evasive action. The crews took to the lifeboats and Guatemala sank an hour later without any casualties. Soon afterwards the Australian minesweeper Doomba picked up the 51 crew and transported them to Sydney.

The Japanese account of the Guatemala’s sinking varies slightly from official Australian records. In his book, Sunk, Mochitsura Hasimoto records the submarine fired one torpedo at Guatemala, which detonated prematurely. The submarine then surfaced and engaged the Panamanian vessel with gunfire, but found it difficult to score a direct hit in the darkness. The submarine intercepted an SOS from the ship announcing she was under attack and asking for assistance. Eventually, one of I-24’s shells hit its target, after which Guatemala’s crew stopped the ship and took to the lifeboats. The submarine then fired a second torpedo, which sank the doomed ship.

This was the last enemy submarine attack in Australian waters for about six weeks.

From the time of the Sydney Harbour raid until the sinking of Guatemala, the Third Submarine Company had sunk four ships with the loss of 73 lives over a period of 12 days. From mid-July until the beginning of August, three more large Japanese submarines – I-11, I-174 and I-175 – joined with I-24 to continue Japan’s campaign of destruction along the coast. They succeeded in sinking another four vessels before leaving Australian waters.

Thereafter, a period of calm followed until January 1943 when I-21 returned to Australian waters and sank six ships off Sydney over the following month. Then, in April 1943, I-26 sank two vessels off Brisbane, and a further six ships were sunk between April and mid-June 1943.

When Japan lost her forward bases at Rabaul and Truk, distant operations into Australian waters were rendered progressively more difficult. By the end of July 1943, submarine operations became almost impossible.

Between June 1942 and December 1944, a total of 27 merchant ships were sunk in Australian waters with the loss of 577 lives, including the 21 sailors who lost their lives on Kuttabul. Of the total fatalities, 268 lives were lost in one attack when the Australian hospital ship, Centaur, was sunk 40 miles east of Brisbane on 14 May 1943. The Centaur sank in about three minutes with only 64 survivors, who spent 36 hours in the water before rescue. The Japanese submarine thought responsible for the sinking was 1-177 commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Nakagawa, who was later tried as a war criminal and spent four years in prison for firing on survivors from a British merchant vessel torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. The sinking of Centaur was not raised at his trial.

Sinking Japanese Submarine I-1

By Bruce Petty

A pair of New Zealand minesweepers teamed up to sink a Japanese submarine off Guadalcanal.

Gordon Bridson was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1909, but shortly thereafter his family moved to Auckland, where he attended Auckland Grammar School. Bridson was larger than most children his age, and into adulthood he continued to stand taller than most men.

Given the near-religious aura that rugby held in the psyche of many New Zealanders, one would think that Bridson would have gravitated toward that sport. For whatever reason, however, and in spite of his size, he gravitated toward swimming, rising to the top of that sport in New Zealand in the 1920s and early 1930s, consistently winning ribbons and cups in national competitions. In 1930, he even went to the Empire Games in Canada, where he won a silver medal. For reasons never explained or expressed, he showed little interest in swimming after that.

In 1927, aged 18 and still an active swimmer, he joined the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNZVR) and received his commission in February 1928 as a probationary sub-lieutenant. Twelve years later, almost a year after World War II started in Europe, he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the RNZVR. A month later, in May 1940, he left with the first draft of volunteers to serve with the Royal Navy in Great Britain, a common practice in those days for New Zealand naval personnel, being British Commonwealth citizens.

As was the case in the United States, when war came to England and British Commonwealth countries, they were caught woefully unprepared. They had few ships, and even fewer, once German submarines began to sink them in large numbers. Commercial vessels were therefore appropriated and converted to military use. For example, HMNZS Matai, a former lighthouse tender, was converted to military use as a minesweeper.

Once in Britain, Bridson was put in command of HMS Walnut, which was 164 feet long, had a complement of 35 men, and did a whopping 11.5 knots when the engines were in good working order. This was also the estimated top speed of mass-produced American Liberty ships that were being launched in American shipyards at about this time. Bridson commanded Walnut for 14 months, from July 23, 1940 to September 26, 1941, and as the Battle of Britain was fought between July and October 1940, one can only imagine the adventures and sights these men at sea witnessed.

The Walnut was part of a 10-ship flotilla that escorted ships in coastal British waters, and though all the ships in this flotilla were part of the Royal Navy, they were manned for the most part by New Zealand officers and ratings. They were often attacked by German ships and planes, and it was during this time that Bridson was awarded his first of many medals, the Distinguished Service Cross.

In October 1941, less than two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and pulled the United States into World War II, Bridson took command of the newly built Bird-class minesweeper Kiwi (T102). Compared to Walnut, Kiwi was 168 feet long and was capable of a breathtaking 13 knots.

When commissioned, Kiwi’s armament consisted of one World War I-vintage 4-inch gun, a few machine guns, and 40 depth charges. With depth charge racks and “Y” launchers, these minesweepers, which were originally ordered as training vessels, were obviously prepared for a multitude of combat-related jobs, including antisubmarine warfare.

Once Kiwi and her sister ship Moa were fitted for sea, they set out on their long voyage for the Pacific. However, before becoming involved in the fighting in Pacific waters, Kiwi and Moa first had to get there. That meant surviving a crossing of a North Atlantic infested with U-boats, which at the time looked capable of crippling Britain’s war effort, as had almost happened a generation earlier during World War I.

Kiwi took up the rear of a convoy that was set to leave British waters for Halifax, Nova  Scotia, in the closing days of 1941. The thoughts of Lt. Cmdr. Bridson and his crew may have been on the threat of U-boat attacks as they set off, but what really came close to sinking them was one of the worst recorded Atlantic hurricanes of the century. South of Iceland, the weather turned nasty, and Kiwi found herself battling seas of up to 80 feet. The crew was confined below decks, except when one of the depth charges broke loose and a work party had to be sent on deck to secure it. Then, on January 9, Kiwi rode the crest of a monster wave and then was sent airborne by a following sea that almost sank her. The damage was severe with bulkheads crumpled and flooding in various parts of the ship, including the bridge where windows gave way. Abandoning ship in Arctic waters would have spelled doom for any crewmen who attempted it, unless they were picked up almost immediately, and being at the end of the convoy, that was not likely. Thanks to skilled seamanship and perhaps a bit of luck, however, Kiwi survived.

A lull in the storm came on January 11, allowing temporary repairs to be made to damaged parts of the ship. Other members of the crew were sent topside to chip away the tons of ice that had accumulated on the rigging and other parts of the ship. With all the damage done to the ship below decks, Kiwi did not need the risk of capsizing from the added weight of accumulated ice topside.

On January 16, Kiwi and her crew were in sight of Newfoundland. Escaping attack from patrolling U-boats in the area, Kiwi put into port where the ship spent two weeks in drydock having emergency repairs done. Likewise, the crew relaxed and caught up on much-needed sleep after the many stressful days and nights of fighting the hurricane.

On January 30, Kiwi left Newfoundland bound for Boston. She left through U-boat-infested waters but arrived without incident. In Boston, Kiwi spent an additional month in Bethlehem Shipyard undergoing further repairs before she was deemed seaworthy again. She was a lucky ship in more ways than one. Not only had she survived one of the worst hurricanes to hit the North Atlantic that century, but she also evaded the U-boats that dominated Atlantic waters at that time. In January 1942, a total of 46 ships were lost to U-boat attacks, and most of them were lost in the North Atlantic.

After a month spent in Boston to repair not only Kiwi but also give her crew a rest, the ship set out again, but this time for warmer waters. Kiwi sailed through the Caribbean and transited the Panama Canal on its long voyage to Auckland before setting off to join the U.S. Pacific Fleet in its struggle to turn the tide against Japan in the waters around the Solomon Islands.

Being a small ship that needed regular refueling stops along the way, Kiwi took a circuitous route to New Zealand, sailing up the west coast of Latin America to San Diego, California. She then headed west to Hawaii, then southwest to Fiji before reaching Auckland and what must have been a welcome time at home with friends and family. Bridson and many others in his crew had been away from home for almost two years.

Tulagi, a small island off the coast of the larger Florida Island in the Solomons, became the first home port for New Zealand’s 25th Minesweeping Flotilla in the South Pacific Theater, then under the command of U.S. Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. They may have been a minesweeping flotilla, but in the early days of the Pacific War, there were not enough ships of various types to satisfy the myriad needs of a navy unprepared for a world war. As a result, these New Zealand corvettes served a variety of functions, including antisubmarine patrols.

The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla was made up of six ships. Matai, originally commanded by A.D. Holden, was the command ship of the flotilla. Prior to the war, Matai served at various times as a lighthouse tender and a governor’s yacht before being requisitioned for wartime use. Likewise, HMNZS Gale and Breeze served as coastal cargo vessels and were owned by the Canterbury Steamship Company before being put to military use. Comparatively speaking, only HMNZS Kiwi, Tui, and Moa were what one might refer to as purpose-built, though even they were constructed on trawler hulls. All three were built in the Henry Robb Shipyards in Leith, Scotland.

Kiwi and Moa were the first of the New Zealand corvettes to see action in the South Pacific. With little in the way of armament, Kiwi and Moa, literally days before going into combat for the first time, traded several bottles of rum (some say it was gin) for some 20mm Oerlikons. As Leading Signalman J. Slater recalled, “The Kiwi mounted one of hers straight in front of her 4-inch gun on the foredeck, and we [aboard the Moa] mounted ours slightly to starboard of the 4-inch.” However, Ewan Stevenson, an underwater archaeologist who has explored and photographed the sunken Moa more than once, says it is mounted on the bow forward of the 4-inch gun and on the centerline.

Thanks to the success of Allied code breakers, Admiral Halsey’s command knew that the Japanese were reinforcing and resupplying their troops on “Starvation Island,” as the Japanese came to call Guadalcanal. This was because they had failed not only to eradicate the Allied presence on Guadalcanal, but had also lost the ability to resupply their forces by conventional means. They were thus forced to pull not only many of their destroyers from their designated task of engaging the enemy but also many of their submarines in an effort to save the situation and avoid defeat. However, what Allied intelligence did not know was that at about this time the Japanese had concluded that the situation on Guadalcanal was not salvageable. The resupply efforts would soon give way to evacuating as many troops as possible, something that was soon to be accomplished at night using destroyers.

On the night of January 29, 1943, though, Kiwi and Moa were directed by the commander of Naval Base Cactus to patrol on a line off Kamimbo Bay on the northwest coast of Guadalcanal for a distance of two miles on either side of the bay’s center line. As Lt. Cmdr. Bridson related in his after-action report, Kiwi proceeded with Moa and commenced patrolling at 6:30 pm. Both Bridson aboard Kiwi and Lt. Cmdr. Peter Phipps (later admiral), skipper of Moa, agreed beforehand to patrol line-abreast with a distance of approximately one mile between them. Less than five hours into their patrol, Able Seaman E. McVinnie, the ASDIC operator aboard Kiwi, made a contact at 9:05 pm at a distance of 300 yards and identified it as a submarine. Soon thereafter, Moa confirmed the contact, and Kiwi then altered course 10 degrees to starboard in order to pass ahead of the submarine. Kiwi then attacked with depth charges, while Moa stood back and directed Kiwi with her sonar.

Interestingly enough, the submarine detection gear known as ASDIC, or sonar, was in part the World War I-era invention of a New Zealander: Ernest (later Lord) Rutherford, born near the town of Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. Rutherford today is referred to as the father of nuclear physics and won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908. During World War I, he turned his attention to submarine detection, resulting in the development of sonar, and it was this innovation that came to be used by all the navies of the world to detect enemy submarines. It was sonar that allowed Kiwi and Moa to first find and then depth-charge the Japanese submarine I-1.

At the time neither Bridson nor Phipps knew that their adversary was the I-1. Nor did they know it was faster than and also twice as big as their two small minesweepers. All they knew was that they had found a submarine and that it was most likely Japanese. Nonetheless, they were committed, and retreat appears not to have been an option. I-1 also had a deck gun that was much larger than anything either Kiwi or Moa had. Still, following the phosphorescent wake of the submerged submarine, Kiwi moved in and dropped six depth charges.

The resulting underwater detonations knocked sailors aboard I-1 off their feet, and a leak appeared in one of the aft provision spaces. Kiwi then pulled away to make sonar contact again. At about 400 yards, Kiwi reestablished contact and moved in to drop another pattern of depth charges. Further damage was done to the steering engine and port shaft of I-1. Pumps were disabled, and a high-pressure manifold was ruptured, filling the control room with a watery mist. The main switchboard was damaged as well, and all the lights went out on the sub. She then developed a 45-degree down angle and plunged well below her designed limit to an estimated depth of 590 feet. Leaks then appeared in her forward torpedo room. Her captain, Lt. Cmdr. Sakamoto Eiichi, ordered the forward group of main ballast tanks blown and a full reverse on the remaining drive shaft. As a result, the loss of I-1 was prevented, if only temporarily.

I-1 surfaced, but seawater had damaged her batteries. That left only her starboard diesel engine operational, and with Kiwi 2,000 yards away, I-1 made a run for it on the surface at 11 knots. Sakamoto then took the helm and ordered the sub’s 125mm deck gun manned, as well as its machine guns. Simultaneously, Kiwi opened up with her 4-inch gun, manned by Leading Seaman W.I. Steele, Able Seaman J.W.C. Kroening, and Able Seaman J. Washer. Likewise, Kiwi’s 20mm Oerlikons opened up while Leading Signalman C. Buchanan illuminated I-1 with Kiwi’s 10-inch searchlight. Moa lent a hand by firing off star shells that not only illuminated I-1 further but also illuminated Kiwi for the Japanese.

The opening barrage of what proved to be a close-in surface battle reminiscent of a bygone era worked to Kiwi’s advantage. Almost immediately, Lt. Cmdr. Sakamoto and the entire Japanese bridge crew were mowed down, including most of the gun crew. Barges lashed to the sub aft of the conning tower filled with supplies for the stranded and starving Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were set alight.

With the bridge crew either dead or wounded, I-1 started to lose speed and drift to starboard. Lieutenant Koreeda Sadayoshi, I-1’s torpedo officer, then came topside and took command. (Koreeda survived the sinking of I-1 and commanded a number of other subs later in the war, including RO-115 and RO-63.)

With Kiwi close aboard, Koreeda concluded that the enemy was planning to capture the sub. He ordered a reserve gun crew on deck and brought up others with rifles in an attempt to prevent the unthinkable from happening. He even sent the officers to fetch their samurai swords.

Sometime during this action, one of the gunners aboard Kiwi testified that he saw somebody in the conning tower of I-1 throw a box overboard that sank immediately. Whether the box contained codebooks or other documents was never ascertained. According to W.J. Holmes in his book Double Edged Secrets, escaping crewmembers of I-1 took “current code books” and buried them ashore, but left behind “call lists, old code books, and charts.” Allied divers later salvaged these, and they proved of great value.

At 9:20 pm, Kiwi altered course to ram I-1, hitting the sub on the port side abaft the conning tower. Soldiers meant to land on Guadalcanal along with the supply barges were seen jumping overboard at this point. Bridson in his after-action report observed as he backed off I-1 that she was “definitely holed.” Kiwi’s 20mm Oerlikons again raked the sub in an attempt to suppress any further return fire. However, I-1 continued to make good speed at an estimated nine knots.

Bridson decided to ram her a second and then a third time. The second attempt was a glancing below, and Bridson reported that it was at this time that Kiwi suffered her first and only casualty of the battle. Leading Signalman C. Buchanan, who was manning the 10-inch searchlight, was wounded, but he continued to man his post until relieved at the conclusion of the battle. He died of his wounds two days later and was honored by both the New Zealand and American navies. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, one of only nine non-Americans to be so honored in World War II.

Although Bridson was formal in his after-action report of the events that took place on the night of January 29, 1943, another account, this one by Admiral Halsey, gives a livelier picture of the events: “The skipper immediately put his helm over and rang up full speed on his telegraph, which so astonished the chief that he yelled up the speaking tube, ‘What’s the matter, you bastard? Have you gone crazy?’ ‘Shut up!’ the skipper yelled back. ‘There’s a weekend’s leave in Auckland dead ahead of us! Give me everything you’ve got, or I’ll come below and kick hell out of you!’ Then Bridson rams again, this time ‘for a week’s leave.’ Ramming I-1 for the third time, he is reported as correcting himself in saying, ‘Once more for a fortnight!’”

In addition to Halsey’s account, another version that added to the reputation, if not the mystique, of Gordon Bridson was shared some years after the war by David Graham, who served on HMNZS Kiwi with Bridson. He described in part the encounter with I-1 as follows: “He [Bridson] shouted down the voice tube, ‘Stand by to ram!’ When the voice replied back from the engine room, ‘What the hell do you do when you ram?’ he [Bridson] replied, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.’”

Also at this time, Lieutenant Sakai Toshimi, I-1’s navigator with sword in hand, tried to board Kiwi but fell into the sea as it pulled away. He was later rescued and served out the war on two other subs before going down with RO-114 the following year.

Kiwi’s third ramming of the I-1 punctured one of the sub’s main ballast tanks, and the minesweeper’s hull slid up onto the sub’s after deck. She tilted precariously to one side before sliding off. Her stem was badly damaged, as was her sonar gear.

By this time the battle had been going on for almost an hour, and Kiwi’s guns had overheated, forcing her to withdraw. Moa then took up the chase, firing all she had and making more hits on the sub. At 11:15 pm, I-1 ran aground just inside Fish Reef north of Kamimbo Bay. The after part of the sub filled with water and sank, while the bow rose at a steep angle above the reef. Lieutenant Koreeda, the senior surviving officer aboard I-1, ordered his men to abandon ship. Sixty-six soldiers and sailors aboard the stricken I-1 escaped to shore and were later evacuated to Rabaul.

In an interview that appeared in The New Zealand Herald the following March, Bridson reported that aboard Kiwi during this battle, there were two Guadalcanal islanders. No explanation was given for why they were aboard, other than to say that during the battle, they joined in by passing up ammunition for the guns. When Kiwi returned to port, the relatives of the two men came aboard “and completely ignoring George and Benny asked me if they had shown fright in front of the Japanese. I assured them they had not, and immediately the pair became centers of attention of an admiring throng.”

In another interview that same month with The Auckland Star, Bridson expressed thanks to the Americans for always giving them timely warning if anything too big to handle might be coming their way. “They didn’t waste any time,” he said. “If they told us to scram, we scrammed.”

Today, we know that these warnings came as a result of Allied efforts at breaking the various Japanese codes, efforts that went back to World War I when the Japanese diplomatic code was first cracked. If Bridson suspected as much, he never expressed it. At the very least, individuals serving in the Solomon Islands knew about the work of the coast watchers and, of course, Allied submarines and aircraft, many with photoreconnaissance capability, which supplemented what the codebreakers could not always provide. At the same time, the intelligence people and high-ranking military personnel on the receiving end of intelligence made sure that snooper aircraft were spotted by the enemy, making them think that their movements were detected by means other than a compromise of their codes.

Although the two minesweepers suffered only one casualty, there easily could have been more. After the battle and damage to both ships was assessed, it was found that one of the 20mm Oerlikons had been hit more than once either by machine-gun bullets or shrapnel. Able Seaman Dalton, who was manning one of them, was therefore one lucky lad.

Besides damage to the forward part of Kiwi from ramming I-1, she also suffered damage to her stern, but not from I-1: it resulted from the premature detonation of one of her own depth charges. In addition, bullet holes were found above the waterline on the port bow, the shrouds on the starboard side of the foremast were shot away, windows on the starboard side of the wheelhouse were shattered, and the winch and wheel covers on the foredeck were destroyed. Most of the damage appears to have been on the starboard side of Kiwi, but how much was the result of hostile gunfire or of the ramming action was not made absolutely clear in the report.

Moa, on the other hand, came out relatively unscathed, even though she joined in the final stage of the battle after Kiwi’s guns overheated. The down side for Moa, however, was that she had to remain on station while Kiwi returned home for repairs and a hero’s welcome for the officers and ratings. The sailors were greeted by large crowds and marched through Auckland in a parade dedicated to them, and this after less than two months in a combat zone. Moa was later sunk off the coast of Tulagi in April 1943 as a result of enemy action.

Even before the sinking of I-1, these little New Zealand ships had a reputation in the South Pacific. Part of it stemmed from envy by their American allies, because the New Zealand Navy, being part of the British Commonwealth, was “wet” (i.e., they allowed liquor aboard their ships), but the U.S. Navy was “dry.” As a result, American naval officers were more than willing to ingratiate themselves to their counterparts in the Royal New Zealand Navy in order to receive invites to the ship’s pub when in port. Of course, a couple of bottles of rum had bought 20mm Oerlikons for Kiwi, and another two bought some for Moa, making a big difference in the battle with the Japanese submarine.

Likewise, the ratings in both navies engaged in a barter system that was symbiotic. Most New Zealand Pacific War veterans confessed that American chow was head and shoulders above anything they were served in their messes, whether aboard ship or ashore. Additionally, American servicemen were paid more than New Zealand servicemen, moving the enterprising New Zealanders to find a variety of ways to supplement their comparatively low wages. Robert Gordon Dunlop, who served in the Solomon Islands as part of the only New Zealand Army division to serve in the Pacific (the 3rd), related the following in a 2007 oral history interview: “We had a camp [on Guadalcanal] that was almost backed on to an American rations store, and a couple of our fellows set up a still. We would go over to the American camp and get a lot of grapefruit juice tins and put it through the still—the distiller—and then sell it back to the Yanks. They gave $30 a bottle for it. It was their own ingredients they gave to us, and then bought it back at $30 a bottle. You could put a match to it and get an almost colorless flame—pretty pure spirits, really.”

Similarly, Charles Laid, who was in a Royal New Zealand Air Force squadron of Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats based near Tulagi, commented, “The 505 Seabees were the Americans that did the net and boom [on Tulagi], and they used to come to our base. As you know, the American Navy is dry, but every week the Seabees used to bring a barge-load of booze over to us, and then on Wednesday and Saturday nights, the American servicemen would come over to our base and help us drink it. The incongruity of it occurred to me only after the war.”

In the case of HMNZS Kiwi, the sailors from New Zealand were well known for another reason. The skipper of Kiwi, Lt. Cmdr. Bridson, was not as stiff and formal as one might expect from a naval officer, especially one brought up in the tradition of the Royal Navy. Talking to his oldest son Nils, one is left with the impression that he was a big man with a big heart, and also had a sense of humor that helped him and his crew through some difficult times a long way from home and loved ones. To relieve some of the tension and perhaps even some of the boredom, Bridson and two of his fellow officers aboard Kiwi took to holding three-man parades while in port.

Again, Admiral Halsey in his autobiography relates having been witness to at least one of these parades: “Three of the Kiwi’s officers—the captain, the medical officer, and the chief engineer—were famous from the Solomons to Auckland. Everyone knew them at least by sight. Not only were they the most mastodonic men I ever laid eyes on—their combined weights were close to 800 pounds—but whenever the Kiwi put into Noumea, these monsters would stage a three-man parade through the town, one of them puffing into a dented trombone, another tooting a jazz whistle, and the third playing a concertina.”

Admiral Halsey also felt that the actions of Kiwi and Moa on the night of January 29 were important enough to deserve some recognition, not only from the New Zealand Navy, but also the U.S. Navy. He therefore recommended Bridson and Phipps for the Navy Cross. Engineering Officer W. Southward was awarded the Silver Star.

Regardless of the honor of being among the few non-Americans to be so awarded in World War II, the three New Zealanders arrived at Admiral Halsey’s office for the ceremony prelubricated. As Admiral Halsey put it, “I had to support them with one hand while I pinned on the crosses with the other. They thanked me, saluted, and rumbled away. The last I saw of them, they picked up the medical officer and their musical instruments, and were forming another parade.”

Bruce Petty is the author of five books, four of which concern World War II in the Pacific. He is a resident of New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Kokoda Trail


Japanese offensive in the Owen Stanleys, 21 July-26 September 1942.


Scene of a bitterly fought and difficult offensive in New Guinea during July-November 1942, in which the Japanese sought to capture Port Moresby by an overland route following the defeat of a naval operation to seize that place.

General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment, meanwhile, were not relieved of their duty. It was decided that instead of coming across the beaches, they would attack overland, across the Owen Stanley Mountains which form the jagged spine of the Bird’s Tail. On July 21, Horii landed on the north shore of the Bird’s Tail in the area of the villages of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, with around 6,500 men. They then attempted to hike across the mountains on the rough, 65-mile Kokoda Track, a trail which climbs to 3,380 feet through some of the most difficult terrain on earth. Opposing the Japanese were small understrength Australian units – and the land itself.

New Guinea was such a difficult place to wage war that the troops found it a triumph when they managed to march a mile a day through its dense forests. These jungles, with their slippery hillsides tangled in forests and foliage where the sun had never shown, and where visibility is often measured in inches rather than yards, were literally hell on earth for most troops who dared to challenge them.

Being located barely south of the equator gives New Guinea a climate in which a veritable encyclopedia of tropical diseases can flourish. The troops discovered that malaria was almost routine and maladies such as dysentery were actually routine.

Initially the South Seas Force under Major-General Tomitaro Horii made rapid and easy progress. The Papuan Infantry Battalion (a Melanesian unit 310 strong) and elements of the 39th Australian Battalion (a militia unit) clashed with the enemy near Awala on 23 July, before falling back on Kokoda. There a confused night action occurred on 28-29 July which resulted in the Australians being forced out. An attempt was made to retake Kokoda on 8 August, but both sides sustained severe casualties and the 39th Battalion and PIB were again obliged to fall back on Deniki. After several Japanese attacks were beaten off over the next week, on 14 August the Australians began a withdrawal along the jungle track (later dubbed the `Kokoda Trail’) over the Owen Stanley Range towards Isurava. For ten days after the abandonment of Deniki the Australians were not heavily pressed by the Japanese. During that time the 39th Battalion was joined by the 53rd Battalion and the headquarters of the 30th Brigade under Brigadier Selwyn Porter, and by 23 August the 21st Brigade commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts had also arrived at Isurava.

While this augmentation of strength was invaluable to stopping the enemy’s progress, the commander of 1st Australian Corps at Port Moresby, Lieut.-General Sydney Rowell, faced a major problem in keeping up an adequate quantity of supplies to even such a meagre force as had been deployed forward. The tired 39th Battalion was accordingly withdrawn to ease the pressure.

On 26 August the Japanese resumed their advance, and fairly quickly Potts’ brigade was forced to mount a series of desperate delaying actions as it fell back first to Eora Creek on 30 August, then to Templeton’s Crossing on 2 September and Efogi on 5 September. Although Australian resistance was becoming increasingly better organised, and the Japanese beginning to feel the strain of their own extended supply line, the effectiveness of units involved in the defence was noticeably reduced through exhaustion and sickness entailed in operating over such harsh terrain. On 10 September Potts handed over command to Brigadier Porter, who withdrew his troops (now called `Maroubra Force’) to Ioribaiwa. The Japanese attacked here the next day, but made little progress. Not only was their advance losing impetus but the Australians were beginning to feel the benefits of the arrival of fresh units. By now the fighting along the track involved brigades of the seasoned AIF 7th Division under Major-General Arthur Allen, and on 14 September command in the forward area was passed to Brigadier Kenneth Eather.

Severe fighting continued around Ioribaiwa for a week, prompting a further withdrawal on 17 September to Imita Ridge, the last effective barrier which was virtually within sight of Port Moresby. This proved to be the limit of the enemy advance, since not only had the South Seas Force outrun its own supply lines but General Horii was ordered onto the defensive because of the reverse sustained by other Japanese forces in operations at Guadalcanal. After he received instructions to establish a primary defensive position on the north coast, he began withdrawing on 24 September. Under Eather’s determined leadership, the retiring enemy were followed back up the trail by the Australians until Kokoda was retaken on 2 November.

In the campaign to this point 607 Australians had been killed and 1,015 sustained wounds in battle; estimates put the rate of sickness at between twice to three times that of combat casualties. No overall figures for losses among the 6,000 troops committed along the track by the Japanese are available, but captured documents dated 2 November 1942 reveal that in the case of two of the five enemy battalions involved the numbers killed, wounded or sick were over 75 per cent of original strength.

Raymond Paull (1958) Retreat from Kokoda, London: William Heinemann; Dudley McCarthy(1959) South-West Pacific Area-First Year: Kokoda to Wau, Canberra: Australian War Memorial; Lex McAulay (1991) Blood and Iron, Sydney: Hutchinson Australia