Aitape-Wewak 1944-1945

This is part of the Australians in the Pacific War series. It tells the story of how Australians served with Allied forces to successfully cut off the Japanese base at Wewak. The troops also liberated Australian mandated territory which later became part of the nation of Papua New Guinea.

ISBN: 978 1 920720 54 4
Series: Australians in the Pacific War
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By August 1944, General Douglas MacArthur had five American and two Australian corps available in the South-West Pacific Area while he was planning his long-promised return to the Philippines. If the Philippines campaign was to be the all-American venture he intended, MacArthur would need to use the six American divisions he had committed to operations at recently captured bases in Bougainville, New Britain and northern New Guinea. To make this possible, it was agreed by Allied commanders that Australian troops should relieve Americans in those areas. In northern New Guinea, the core of the Australian force would be the 6th Australian Division, which thus became identified with the operations generally known as the Aitape–Wewak campaign.

A map depicting Australian Advances in Papua New Guinea from Aitape and Wewak locations in relation to the Pacific Ocean

Aitape Wewak World War II map

When the Australians took over from the Americans at Aitape in September–November 1944, they found that their allies had followed a policy of staying within a relatively small perimeter and not mounting major offensives against the Japanese. The Australian commander-in-chief General Sir Thomas Blamey believed that the policy of allowing the enemy to 'wither on the vine' was unsuitable for Australians. He was keen to assign a task to the veteran 6th Division, which had been out of action for many months. That assignment, when broken down into specifics by Lieutenant General Vernon Sturdee, commander of the First Australian Army, and transmitted to the divisional commander, Major General Jack Stevens, comprised three roles. The first was to protect the airfield and radar installations around Aitape; the second was to destroy Japanese forces in the area and prevent them from advancing westwards; the third was to support the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) and Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) in intelligence gathering, establishing patrol bases and protecting the New Guinean population.

The AIB and ANGAU units had, since April, been patrolling south of the Torricelli Ranges, which overlook the narrow coastal strip, and had been promoting guerrilla warfare by villagers. The 6th Division, which would lift the intensity of the fighting, only arrived at a trickle between October and December, thanks to shortages of shipping and unloading equipment.

The first Australians to arrive were members of the 3rd Base Sub-Area, which set up a works company, general hospital, field ambulance, ordnance depot, mobile laundry, brigade workshops, docks operating company and general transport company. It was ready to serve the 6th Division when it began arriving in late October. The first fighting unit to arrive was the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment, which was given important patrolling responsibilities in the coastal area. It was first to increase the scant available information on Japanese strength in the coastal area. Then, on 2 November, a patrol was ordered to clear the coastal strip as far as the Danmap River, some 80 kilometres east of Aitape. Here and in the Torricellis, the cavalrymen encountered small groups of disorganised Japanese, and for the loss of one Australian killed and one wounded had by the end of November killed 73, captured 7 and cleared a large area. The Japanese seemed preoccupied with finding food, and there was evidence of cannibalism among them. According to the unit's historian, Shawn O'Leary, a lieutenant in the regiment, the locals greatly helped the Australians:

Natives, with their superb intelligence system, were of the utmost value to the commandos. They could move, unmarked by the Japanese, wherever they wished, and report movements and locations of an enemy which had impressed them without payment, raided their gardens, used their women, burned their villages and frequently murdered them. Angau had woven a web of spies, known as sentries, who were stretched throughout the area in which the enemy might congregate.

Facing the Australians were 35,000 Japanese of the XVIII Army, which was commanded by Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi from his headquarters near Wewak. They outnumbered the Australians, who knew, however, that their opponents were short not only of supplies and weapons but also air and naval support. The Australians were far better supplied and equipped. They had some naval support and also substantial air support from 71 Wing, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), including the Beauforts of 7, 8 and 100 Squadrons, and from the Boomerangs and Wirraways of a flight of 4 Squadron.

Patrolling was crucial in the Aitape–Wewak campaign, though, as Lance Sergeant John Lupp of 2/1st Battalion, a veteran who also fought in the Kokoda campaign, recalled, its function was different from in the earlier fighting:

In the Aitape–Wewak campaign ... you had to patrol ... to find if any Nips were there. To engage them if you clashed with them. Different altogether to New Guinea, the first time. They were there all the time. But [in the Aitape–Wewak] campaign you had to find them. They weren't coming to you, you had to go to them.

In this campaign, uncertainty about the future deployment of the 6th Division limited planning for a time. However, as it gradually became apparent that the 6th would not be needed elsewhere, the goal became the capture of the Japanese base at Wewak by means of parallel advances along the coast and the Torricellis. On 26 November, the relief of the Americans was completed and General Stevens assumed command. Stevens considered the two advances complementary, for unless the mountains were secured the Japanese on the coast could simply retreat to their garden areas in the highlands or further south to the valley of the great Sepik River. He was already planning, and soon got approval for, a limited offensive to cut the enemy's forward line of communications and destroy Japanese forces east of the Danmap.

In early December, the 19th Brigade took over the coastal advance from the cavalry, which sent the 2/7th Commando Squadron inland to establish a patrol base at Tong. From there, the commandos clashed with enemy patrols and secured a wide area. Stevens regarded Tong as a base for a further advance into the mountains, and ordered the 2/5th Battalion into the area. By the end of December 1944, the battalion was approaching the enemy's main defences in the Torricellis. Corporal Cliff Hurst, 2/6th Battalion, described the terrain:

Native villages were dotted amidst a mixture of jungle, semi-jungle and open kunai country. The villages were linked together by a maze of jungle tracks which in turn crossed many creeks ...

At the same time, on the coast, the 19th Brigade's battalions were achieving success in their first campaign since Crete in 1941. The 2/4th Battalion destroyed the enemy forces west of the Danmap River, which it crossed on 17 December. Soon afterwards, the battalion killed twenty-eight Japanese in an ambush. The 2/11th Battalion took up the advance on 22 December. The 2/11th historian, KT Johnson, said of their everyday work:

... 2/11th Battalion patrols sought long and conscientiously to find the enemy, sometimes claiming one or two victims, at other times merely sighting or finding traces of the enemy, in a deadly game of hide and seek ... [It] became evident that patrols of too long or too distant duration were as dangerous as the enemy ... weariness could render a man careless or unable to act on reflex, for by reflex action, many a man killed his enemy and thereby saved himself. Nevertheless, sound training, backed by physicalfitness, and matured by experience, impressed themselves on troops, and patrols soon exuded skill at their work, and confidence in themselves.

The 2/11th repulsed counter-attacks and continued advancing, helped by close artillery and air support. Three tanks of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment also assisted the 2/11th in the capture of Niap, Dogreto Point and Abau on the coast between 6 and 20 January.

In the meantime the 19th Brigade's third battalion, the 2/8th, had been advancing on an inland route through the foothills of the Torricellis. A shortage of carriers delayed its progress, but by 8 January it occupied the village of Malin, south of Niap. The Japanese sent a large force to recapture Malin, but were driven off in one of a series of sharp fights around the upper Danmap, where the terrain was so rugged that carrier pigeons had to be employed to get written signals to brigade headquarters.

The 19th Brigade had killed 434 Japanese for the loss of 36 dead by the time the 16th Brigade was ordered to take over. As it did so, on 21 January the flooded Danmap River destroyed a bridge that Australian engineers had been constructing. Then, on a drenched 26 January, various groups were trapped as the river rose rapidly and tore giant trees out of the ground. Lieutenant Tim Fearnside, who commanded the machine-gun platoon of the 2/3rd Battalion on a tiny island in the river, described the climax of the flooding:

We scrambled up the trees that were still standing, helpless, primitive creatures suddenly brought face-to-face with the fury of nature and a face of death that none of us had ever looked upon before. Of a sudden we knew we would be embroiled in a maelstrom and powerless to help ourselves, like participants in a nightmare. Shouting to make myself heard above those few troubled metres I called that it was every man for himself. It couldn't have been otherwise, but that made it official. One by one the trees remaining standing were eased over into the torrent ... There was an ominous crackle as the great pile of timber at the top of the island waddled forward. Hundreds of tonnes of green timber were being pressed forward against the resisting boulders. They groaned and edged forward, like nightmarish monsters emerging from the deep. Once they moved the torrent changed the pattern of the timber; the monstrous pile heaved convulsively and the timber scattered, flying into the torrent like a shower of heavy assegais. On the instant our island was engulfed and we were flung pell-mell into the torrent, or some were. Some were killed outright in that mad onslaught of frenzied water and green timber; others were swirled beneath the press of timber and drowned; others were knocked unconscious and their bodies snatched and sent racing downstream and turned over and over, like otters. We were no longer a military group acting in cohesion but individuals acting for ourselves.

Eleven Australians drowned. Seven of the forty-six bridges between the Danmap and Aitape were washed away. These floods temporarily halted the coastal advance.

In the Torricellis, the 2/5th Battalion made steady progress and by the end of January had driven the more numerous enemy from an area approximately 20 kilometres (west to east) by 13. RAAF bombers made useful air strikes in front of the Australian positions almost daily, guided by radio telephone and mortar smoke.

Unfortunately, there was only one transport aircraft to support the inland advance. Supplies in the area were dropped by parachute and then carried to the forward troops by carriers. The 2/5th Battalion's Clifford 'Muggsy' McInnes, who worked with New Guineans at the Tong base, illustrated the bond that developed:

When everyone had finished there and had to go back to the coast, Marys [New Guinean women] and natives lined up on both sides and we had to walk down the middle of the line. Marys shook our hands and the natives saluted. It was quite a long line and by the end of it I had a lump in my throat as did the others, one of the saddest farewells I could ever experience ...

Progress on the coast, as in the mountains, was hamstrung by equipment shortages: here it was lack of heavy equipment such as bulldozers, tip trucks and graders. General Stevens warned General Sturdee early in January that unless he received more 'maintenance facilities and air support' his advance could not proceed in February. Based on the hope that these would be provided, Stevens offered plans for advances to Wewak and, in the mountains, Maprik, where the Japanese had their supply base.

While Stevens waited for an answer, one boon was the employment of landing craft to carry supplies from Aitape to Dogreto Bay, the first point east of Aitape that was accessible to landing craft. From 30 January onwards they arrived every two or three days with items as heavy as trucks. That night there was a tough fight when a Japanese force attacked a platoon of the 2/1st Battalion, which was now leading the coastal advance. The platoon, under Lieutenant John Haydon, occupied 'Haydon's Knoll', on the western end of Nambut Hill, which overlooked an unusually narrow coastal strip cut by several creeks. For five hours, thirty Japanese tried to drive the Australians back with small arms, grenades and gelignite. These Japanese were the vanguard of a battalion sent from Wewak to force the Australians back across the Danmap. That was an impossible task, but the Australians' determination to push in the other direction and occupy Nambut Hill was also a tall order, requiring three weeks of fighting. The hill fell on 18 February, thanks to courageous infantry and to accurate bombing by Beauforts. At the same time the 2/3rd Battalion, on the inland coastal route, won a series of sharp fights on Long Ridge.

On 10 February, General Sturdee ordered the 6th Division to continue its advance on Wewak, but 'within the limit of its own resources and without becoming involved in a major engagement'. This meant that Stevens would simply have to make do with even longer supply lines. Nevertheless, he informed his brigadiers that he intended to take the coastal objectives of But, Dagua and Wewak. In the mountains he would capture Maprik and then push eastwards. He told General Sturdee that 'administratively the operation was a complete gamble'. This was most apparent in the inland advance, where supply difficulties limited Brigadier Moten to employing just one battalion plus one company and two commando squadrons. The uncertain weather and lack of shipping at Aitape jeopardised the coastal advance.

The 2/5th Battalion advanced through the Torricellis in February. At Balif, one of the villages it captured, the Australians cleared a light airstrip, from which casualties could travel by air rather than endure a six-day carry through the mountains. They were flown out by Auster light aircraft of 16 and later 17 (Air Observation Post) Flight. At the same time, specially picked men—all rugby players—of the 2/1st Field Regiment carried two heavy mortars to Balif, whence they fired on dug-in Japanese up ahead.

Japanese counter-attacks on the 2/5th Battalion and the 2/10th Commando Squadron were driven off. When the 2/5th was relieved by the 2/7th Battalion, its men reflected on the loss of 7 of its members killed; the battalion counted 376 enemy dead and took 12 prisoners in the same period.

The Australian advance through the mountains was driving up to 2000 Japanese further south, where they could sustain themselves in garden areas. To minimise the threat to his flank, Moten sent a company of the 2/6th Battalion under Major David Hay—'Hayforce'— to sweep through this area slightly ahead of the main advance and to drive the Japanese east. Hay later gave an illuminating explanation of the gear taken by his men into the Torricellis on 23 February:

Their loads (more than 60 pounds) seem to have been very nearly as heavy as those carried by the men of the company two years before when they scrambled up the hills from Wau to Mubo. The dress was 'marching order less haversacks' (the men had found the latter a nuisance in the Wau–Salamaua campaign). The packs contained: mosquito net, shirt, trousers, socks (2 pairs), jersey pullover, towel, laces, mess gear, day's ration. Half a tent shelter and a gas cape were fastened over the top of the pack. In 1943 packs had had to accommodate a blanket, ground sheet, spare boots and steel helmet. The latter item was no longer on issue, and the other three were no longer carried on the man. With an air base so close and with much more sophisticated organisation, it was safe to expect that they would be delivered by air drop as and when required. The same applied to other heavier items such as the two inch mortar, at least half the ammunition for the Bren and Owen guns, and half the number of emergency ration packs ... Important additions to what had to be carried on the man were an increased atebrin supply, salt tablets ... and a number of small shovels, short picks and machetes, issued on a section basis ... Many of the troops found it convenient to burden themselves with both halves of a shelter tent ...

In this period, the Japanese in the area were reinforced and became more aggressive in patrols, ambushes and reoccupying lost villages. In mid-March, an isolated troop of 2/10th Commandos were besieged for five days at Milak. Their one mortar and air support were crucial in assisting them to hold on and kill forty-five of their attackers. The commandos' historian, Shawn O'Leary, recorded the effectiveness of one air attack at Milak:

... five Beauforts came in at 1500 feet [460 m], approaching straight as though drawn on strings, dropped bombs and strafed to within 50 feet [15 m] of the [Australian] weapon pits, directed to their targets by [an Australian trooper] on the wireless. One plane, some distance away, disintegrated in the air as its bombs detonated prematurely on release.None of the crew survived.

In mid-March, the 2/10th Commando Squadron was relieved on the northern flank of the mountain advance by the 2/6th Battalion, which joined the 2/7th and Hayforce. By the beginning of April they were poised for the final drive to Maprik.

On the coastal sector, the 16th Brigade, with 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and 2/9th Commando Squadron under command, was also pushing forward. When Brigadier Roy King established that the enemy was not defending the approaches to the airfield at But, he sent a company of 2/2nd Battalion to dash ahead and grab it as a potential base. On 16 March the advance was halted by the defenders of a complex of bunkers and foxholes astride the coastal track. The citation of the 2/2nd Battalion's Lance Corporal Samuel Stubbs explained what followed:

... covered by the fire of his section he rushed the [two forward] bunkers throwing grenades into each and killing four enemy. This done, he advanced without hesitation to the third and fourth bunkers firing into their slits and calling to his section to advance. He killed three more Japanese with his Owen gun and finally moved forward on to the track and covered the consolidation of the platoon on the objective ... His outstanding gallantry undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.

Stubbs' action, for which he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), contributed significantly to the march on But. By 17 March the whole battalion was established around But, with its jetty. So rapid was the advance that the confused enemy was still firing artillery shells several kilometres behind the foremost Australians, who in the next few days destroyed four field guns as they continued to advance.

The enemy soon retreated to well-prepared positions in the steep hills to the south. To the 2/2nd Battalion fell the important task of clearing these Japanese, who represented a threat to the southern flank of the advance on Wewak. Some of the toughest fighting of the campaign ensued, especially around the Tokuku Pass. When, on 25 March, the leading platoon advancing on one narrow ridge was pinned down, the commander of the reserve platoon, Lieutenant Albert 'Bert' Chowne, took action. Running up the steep track, he threw grenades that knocked out two machine-guns. Then, while firing his sub-machine-gun from the hip, he led his platoon in a charge that took the feature and, after he had killed two more Japanese, cost him his life. Chowne was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to any member of the veteran 6th Division.

The Tokuku Pass fell on 5 April, as 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalion troops attacked it from both sides. On 2 April, two companies of 2/3rd Battalion had been sent to attack a Japanese headquarters on the basis of information provided by a New Guinean who had been employed carrying the Japanese 20th Division commander, Lieutenant General Masutaro Nakai around in a chair. Lieutenant James Copeman of the 2/3rd Battalion was with the two-company patrol as it reached its objective, on the second day:

We were climbing a pretty steep slope in open rain forest when suddenly our guide propped and turning to me said 'Japan man there'. Then we froze. Not a movement, not a sound; how two hundred men could remain so quiet is beyond my comprehension, but they did. The leading section ... was 10 yards from a track junction leading from the village centre, two Japs were having a yarn as we watched, and whilst the boss, John McCracken, decided on a plan of attack these two Japs were joined by others all having a confab until there were eight or nine of them there ... While the orders were being whispered we could hear the everyday sounds of an army H.Q. typewriter, the light buzzing of conversation and an occasional cough. I lined [my platoon] up across the front, the first section squatting, the second kneeling and the third standing, all in a position to see our unwary Japanese target. I was standing to one side when I gave the order to fire, which was answered by about twenty-four men with their various weapons. My hat went with that blast of fire and I have not seen it since.

In this and the subsequent firing, 28 of about 40 Japanese at the headquarters were killed. General Nakai was not among them. Killed also were two Australians, including Lieutenant Robert Varley, whose father, Brigadier Arthur Varley MC, died as a prisoner of the Japanese.

From 19 March barges had begun arriving at But, which became a thriving base, as King had anticipated. One important arrival that day was General Blamey, who approved plans for an advance over the remaining 30 kilometres to Wewak. Soon afterward, Stevens was pleasantly surprised to learn that he would be allotted ten additional landing craft (LCTs) as well as the sloop HMAS Swan, three corvettes (HMA Ships Colac, Dubbo and Deloraine), six motor launches and more aircraft. Stevens' desire to make an amphibious landing beyond Wewak could now be fulfilled.

On 3 April, Moten issued orders for the capture of Maprik. A preliminary was the establishment of an airstrip, the site of which had been identified in January about 13 kilometres south of Maprik. Hayforce captured it on 12 April, after which the 2/7th Battalion's pioneers and about 200 New Guineans began creating the strip. The 2/7th Battalion had the main task of taking Maprik itself, and opened their attack on 15 April. Determined and well ensconced Japanese had to be forced out by means of manoeuvre, firepower, air support and great courage—and air, artillery and mortar support—by leaders such as Lieutenants Reg Saunders and Jim Bowden. Saunders had recently become the first Aboriginal commissioned officer in the Australian army, and in his first campaign as a platoon commander led a successful outflanking movement outside Maprik on 19 April. His company commander later called it 'a fine performance and a classic example of command. The Japs were strongly entrenched there and in difficult terrain'. Of Saunders, he said: 'He always was an exceptionally good soldier and clever in action. He always conducted himself as a gentleman, and his colour made no difference to him or his associates'. The following day one of those associates, Lieutenant Jim Bowden, ignored a wound in leading a patrol to the summit of the enemy defences in the area, at House Tamboran. Maprik fell on 22 April.

There was still much fighting ahead in the mountains, but the arrival of the first Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft on Hayfield on 14 May signalled that the 17th Brigade would henceforth be better equipped to do it. Virtually all troops were now brought in or out by air, as was heavy equipment such as field guns, tractors and jeeps. A road was constructed to Maprik and continued east behind the advancing troops.

By then Wewak had fallen. After some stiff fighting, the 2/2nd Battalion and a squadron of tanks crossed the Hawain River on 27 April. The historian of the 2/4th Armoured Regiment noted of this period that: 'It was quite apparent that the Nips had no stomach for the tanks for there was ample evidence where they had speedily evacuated as the tanks approached'.

The 16th Brigade had by now advanced 56 kilometres, killed 909 and captured 27 Japanese for the loss of 5 killed and 192 wounded. It was exhausted, and the 19th Brigade took over the advance. That Brigade was now directed to thrust to Cape Wom and from there to attack Wewak from the west. The 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment and other detachments would simultaneously land some 15 kilometres east of Wewak. The 19th Brigade's advance, supported by tanks and nearly all the division's artillery, began on 3 May. By 7 May, the 2/4th Battalion had reached the outskirts of Wewak, having faced no organised opposition. That day, Australians who were concentrated around Cape Wom were mistakenly attacked by American Lightning aircraft. Eleven Australians were killed and twenty-one wounded.

The real enemy were on Wewak Point, which the 2/4th Battalion attacked on 10 May. Two troops of tanks and five batteries of artillery provided support. The point fell quickly, but then bunkers, caves and tunnels had to be blown up. The Japanese lost more than 100 dead, the Australians just 2. Another 80 Japanese died on 11 May, as the Australians took the airfield. Further south, the 2/11th Battalion, which was seeking to block the Japanese retreat from Wewak, captured the 710 Feature in an intense struggle.

On 11 May came the amphibious landing of 'Farida Force' at Dove Bay, east of Wewak. For some weeks the 6th Division had been supported by a small flotilla, called Wewak Force, under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Dovers. It comprised HMA Ships Swan, Dubbo and Colac and five motor launches. On 11 May, the ships transported Australian commandos to a point nearly 1000 metres off Wewak, where the soldiers were transferred to landing craft. Thanks to supporting fire from naval vessels, including the cruiser HMAS Hobart and the destroyers HMA Ships Arunta and Warramunga, as well as air support, the landing was a success and those ashore were soon looking to advance to link up with the troops further west.

Those troops were heavily engaged in a fight at Wirui Mission, a steep kunai-covered hill nearly 100 metres high and overlooking the airfield. With tank support, Captain Eric Smith's company of the 2/4th Battalion captured the eastern slopes and summit on 14 May. Nevertheless, Japanese were still firing from bunkers on the north-western slopes. On the following day, Smith's company set out to eliminate these bunkers. The leading section became pinned down after several of its men were hit. Private Edward 'Ted' Kenna was with the supporting section, just 50 metres from the bunkers. Undeterred by the danger, he stood up in the kunai grass in full view of enemy machine-gunners and fired his own light machine-gun at them. The duel was inconclusive, and Kenna called to the nearby Private Eddie Rau to throw him a rifle. Kenna now showed himself to be a crack shot: with four bullets he silenced the enemy post. Then, taking the Bren again, he eliminated a second post about 65 metres away. A tank knocked out the third and last post, thus allowing a meeting of the 2/4th and 2/11th Battalions. Kenna received the Victoria Cross for his heroic contribution to the victory at Wirui Mission, which gave the Australians control of the Wewak coast.

The 2/8th Battalion took up the advance. After artillery and air support helped it to take Boram village and airfield, on 22 May it linked with Farida Force.

The Aitape–Wewak campaign entered its final stage at the end of May. The Japanese had lost all of their bases on the coast and had been driven to mountains inland. To their west were the 17th Brigade forward of Maprik. To their north were the rest of the 6th Division. The surviving Japanese were still organised, determined, relatively well fed and armed. They were also holed up in eminently defensible terrain.

A crucial factor in the Australians' success had been air support, which had hitherto comprised 1458 sorties and 1236 tons of bombs. However, by the end of May an acute shortage of bombs limited that contribution. 71 Wing even resorted to using captured bombs, only 60 per cent of which worked. This shortage was only overcome on 9 July. The airmen also engaged in a spot of psychological warfare. Squadron Leader John Kessey, 100 Squadron, described the use of their 'empties':

... one of the things would be to get beer bottles and put a razor blade in the neck of it and just drop those over the side. They sounded a screeching noise as they came down, you'd think all hell had let loose, and you'd think one hell of a big bomb's coming down. We used to throw a lot of those out and they'd give a hell of a fright to them.

The aircrews of 71 Wing—its original squadrons were joined at different times by 6 and 15 Squadrons—were able to bomb and to drop supplies without fear of enemy fighters, as none were left in the area. However, operations were still hazardous. Bad weather, accidents, anti-aircraft fire, high terrain and problems with the fuzings of some bombs contributed to the loss of a number of aircrews, as well as aircraft destroyed, written-off or damaged.

Nevertheless, the supply advantages won by the establishment of Hayfield benefited the 17th Brigade as it approached the enemy's elaborate mountain defences. With support from artillery, aircraft and the 2nd New Guinea Infantry Battalion in the south, the 17th Brigade drove the Japanese from successive features, until by 8 August it had secured a base at Kiarivu airfield. The Japanese strength in the ranges, it was later discovered, was twice that of the Australians who were attacking them so effectively.

The main body of the 6th Division was in the meantime heavily engaged in mountain fighting too, south of Wewak. Stevens assigned the capture of two crucial heights, Mount Tazaki and Mount Shiburangu, to the 19th Brigade on 28 May. While the 16th Brigade continued to rest, two battalions of the 8th Brigade were ordered to Wewak to help defend the base.

Mount Tazaki fell to the 2/4th Battalion with little resistance, though the Japanese continued to fight around it. The 2/8th Battalion captured Shiburangu on 27 June, with the help of devastating bombing by Beaufort bombers and 3000 artillery shells fired by the 2/1st and 2/3rd Field Regiments. The 2/8th historian, Arthur Bentley, remarked:

While there is nothing more stimulating to any soldier than the sight of his own warships, aircraft or tanks, there is certainly no sound which uplifts the heart of an infantryman like the sound of his own artillery. So it was with the men of C Company as they waited on the start line and listened to the bombardment of their objective.

The infantrymen also showed great skill and courage in clearing the hill. They lost 2 killed, the Japanese 44. However, to the Australians' chagrin, they discovered that the key ground was a height known as 'The Blot', nearly one kilometre south. A bombardment of 3500 rounds proved decisive in permitting the 2/8th Battalion to take this feature on 14 July.

In early July, the 8th Brigade took over the defence of the Wirui Creek – Mandi area on the right flank. This area was being subjected to raids. The 30th and 35th Battalions and the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, attached to bring the brigade up to strength, began extensive patrolling. The 30th Battalion experienced its first attack on the night of 10 July but drove off the raiding party, killing thirteen with no loss. After artillery fired on Australian positions, unsettling New Guineans working as carriers and labourers, a company from the machine-gun battalion went out in search of the guns. Attached was a platoon of the 35th Battalion. Captain John Bellair, 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, would have preferred to go without them:

They were young and inexperienced ... What I was really being asked to do was to get them blooded, which at this stage of the war seemed to me to be unnecessary. I had to obey orders and they came with us.

The Japanese were found occupying a ridgeline in numbers too great to contemplate a full-scale attack. The Australians raided the enemy lines, suffering casualties, before withdrawing. In weeks of patrolling and clashes, the 8th Brigade lost more than 130 men killed or wounded.

The battalions of the 6th Division were now generally at only about half strength in riflemen. Disease and Japanese resistance, including foraging raids on the coastal plain, continued to take casualties. Australian troops were still advancing in the Prince Alexander Range when the imminent end of hostilities was announced. The Aitape–Wewak campaign can be too readily dismissed as easy. While an Australian victory was never in doubt, for the Australian fighting men involved, it was physically demanding, stressful and dangerous. An unnamed infantryman captured some of the reasons for that stress in the following account of a patrol on Good Friday 1945:

Des said to me, 'Nothing ahead. I can hear doves cooing!' but a moment later all hell broke loose, for an over-eager Jap sniper fell from his perch in a tree. 'Ambush!' I think that Jap was hit with everything before he hit the ground. Diving, running, everything that moved was shot at till we found cover. Des and I were behind an anthill but our backs were open so after a quick chat we thought we should move. Des stood up from behind the anthill and simultaneously a Jap on the other side ... stood up and fired his rifle. Des died falling across my back. Jumping quickly to my feet I gave the Jap a squirt with my Owen then dived for further cover. I will never know whether the bullet in my hip knocked me down or whether it hit me as I fell over the ever-present roots that clawed at each footstep ... though I could hear bullets clipping leaves I had an immediate feeling of peace with the world. I'd got my 'homer', I was out of the war. There was no pain, no reaction to Des's death, for my mind at this point couldn't cope with anything more. Those things were to come later.

Griffith Spragg, a sergeant of the same battalion, the 2/3rd, who was later, as a psychiatrist, to become an expert on combat stress, recalled of the campaign and its conclusion:

Our last campaign, Aitape–Wewak, was physically much less arduous and infinitely less terrifying [than the Owen Stanleys campaign], although it was more than twice as long in time. Before it had ended we were becoming sick of the process and were ever ready to take action to avoid what we had come to perceive as unnecessary hazards. When finally it did end, not with the whimper we had anticipated but with a big bang, the relief was like having a good hot meal and a companion in a warm bed.

The 6th Division lost more than 440 men killed and more than 1100 wounded in the campaign. More than 16,000 were admitted to hospital because of sickness. The Japanese lost about 9000 killed and 269 captured. They also lost approximately 7700 square kilometres to the Australians, who advanced more than 110 kilometres along the coast and more than 70 kilometres inland. The political and strategic necessity of the campaign was already doubted while it was being fought, but this only heightens the admiration due to the Australian troops for the professional and determined way they achieved their advance over dreadful terrain against a stubborn enemy.

References

The official history Australia in the War of 1939–1945, published by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, has several volumes covering aspects of the Aitape–Wewak campaign. Army operations are in Gavin Long, The Final Campaigns (1963); the air force contribution is in George Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943–45 (1957); and naval operations are in G Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942–1945 (1968). In addition, medical services are in Allan S Walker, The Island Campaigns (1957) and Medical Services of the RAN and RAAF (1961).

A number of unit histories cover operations in the area. Those from which quotes were drawn include Arthur Bentley, The Second Eighth: A history of the 2/8th Australian Infantry Battalion (Melbourne, 1984); Ken Clift, War Dance: The history of the 2/3 Aust Inf Battalion AIF (Kingsgrove, 1980) including the quote of Lieutenant Copeman; David Hay, Nothing Over Us: The story of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion (Canberra, 1984) including the quotes of Hay and Cliff Hurst; RNL Hopkins, Australian Armour: A history of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, 1927–1972 (Canberra, 1978); KT Johnson, The story of the 2/11th (City of Perth) Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–45 (Swanbourne, 2000); Shawn O'Leary, To the Green Fields Beyond: The story of the 6th Australian Division Cavalry Commandos (Sydney, 1975); S Trigellis-Smith, All the King's Enemies: A history of the 2/5th Australian Infantry Battalion (Melbourne, 1988) for the quote of 'Muggsy' McInnes; and Stan Wick, Purple Over Green: The history of the 2/2 Australian Infantry Battalion, 1939–1945 (Sydney, 1977) for the quote of Samuel Stubbs.

A few memoirs and biographies of veterans of the Aitape–Wewak campaign also have been published. Those from which quotes were drawn include GH Fearnside, Half to Remember: The reminiscences of an Australian infantry soldier in World War II (Sydney, 1975); Griffith Spragg, When Good Men Do Nothing (Loftus, 2003); and Harry Gordon, The Embarrassing Australian: The story of an Aboriginal warrior (Melbourne, 1965) being the story of Reg Saunders.

The Australians at War Film Archive, set up by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, is another source of quotes of John Lupp. Transcripts are available on the internet at www.australiansatwarfilmarchive.gov.au.

A military aircraft crew walking along past aeroplanes.

Pilots and aircrews of 8 and 100 Squadrons RAAF at Tadji airfield east of Aitape in October 1944. They had just returned from operations over enemy territory. Their aircraft, Australian-built Beaufort bombers, are visible in the background. The squadrons had been based at Tadji since June of that year, and would soon be almost entirely occupied supporting the 6th Division's operations between Aitape and Wewak. AWM OG1605

A crew of male military personnel onboard a ship.

Men of the 2/4th Battalion crowd aboard the American troopship USS Mexico on 30 October 1944. During the voyage, this 5236-ton ship carried about 1275 soldiers. According to the battalion historian, the crowding apparent in the photograph had one advantage: there was no space for exercises, training or parades, so men simply rested or sunbaked. AWM 083089

Male soldiers making their way off a barge.

Members of the 6th Division come ashore from a landing barge at Aitape beach in November 1944. Due to a lack of shipping, the concentration of the 6th Division lasted from September till December. The official caption identifies the soldier in the foreground as Corporal M Gill of the 2/7th Battalion. AWM 083558

A male soldier walking at the front of a line of male soldiers.

Private HJ Hunt of the 2/4th Battalion returns from one of the campaign's early patrols, along the Danmap River in December 1944. Although the patrol commenced at 4.00 am and he is wet through, Hunt manages a smile. AWM 084218

Male soldiers crouching and lying down in a jungle terrain.

Men of the 2/11th Battalion move with great caution in an attack on Japanese positions east of Matapau on 2 January 1945. The day had begun with a Japanese attack on a 2/11th company perimeter. That day, the battalion lost 2 killed and 5 wounded, while killing 14 enemy and wounding many more. It was the beginning of five days of sharp fighting as determined Japanese sought to halt the coastal advance. AWM 078058

A male soldier pointing to a place on a map with a ruler with seven more male soldiers looking on.

A section of the 2/4th Battalion prepares to go on patrol in January 1945, as the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Ross Ellerman, briefs the men with the aid of a relief map. This patrol was probably headed east of the Danmap River, which looks like a long ribbon on the map. Within two weeks, the river would be severely flooded. AWM 018009

Threw aircraft crewmen pushing out cargo from a aeroplane.

Australians of 2/160 Supply Depot Platoon push a load of supplies out the doorway of a RAAF Douglas C-47 Dakota transport in early 1945. Until March of that year, this unit and 2/188 Supply Depot Platoon were entirely responsible for supplying the 17th Brigade in its inland advance. Initially there was one, later two of these 'biscuit bombers' available. Here, Private Ted Rowell lies on his back, ready to apply pressure at the key moment. Also needed to shift the heavy load, with its attached parachute, are Private Ted Ross and Sergeant Harry Whaling. The 44-year-old Whaling would be killed in an accident on 17 February 1945. AWM 042734

A shirtless male soldier swing a large hammer with more shirtless male soldiers working in the background.

Australian engineers work on a bridge on 3 February 1945. The sapper wielding a sledge hammer in the foreground is Sapper Fred Beeton of the 2/14th Field Company. This unit had disembarked at Aitape in November, the first of four Australian field companies to arrive there, and had been busily erecting bridges ever since. Australians had built more than forty bridges by February. The photographed bridge was prefabricated in Aitape and the pieces transported to the river by truck. AWM 018072

A male soldier talking to an indigenous man.

At an Australian supply depot on a mountain track in the Torricelli Ranges, carriers prepare to set out with their loads for the forward areas in February 1945. While they stand to the left, an Australian soldier standing on a corrugated log track at centre gives instructions to the 'boss-boy'. AWM 030257/08

Members of a naval gun crew, wearing hooded protective suits, fire a large deck-mounted gun toward a distant coastline.
Members of a gun crew aboard the sloop HMAS Swan lay down a barrage on Japanese positions in the But-Kuak area between Aitape and Wewak, New Guinea, on 26 February 1945. AWM 079323
Male soldiers crossing a river with a rope.

A scene that illustrates one of the main obstacles to the Australian advance on Wewak: rivers. Heavily loaded troops, probably of the 2/2nd Battalion, cross the flooded Ninahau River in March 1945. The current is so fast that they have to go hand over hand by rope. Crossings like this were an ideal ambush point. The 2/2nd Battalion's patrols across this river, led in some cases by the redoubtable Lieutenant Chowne, were the prelude to the capture of the key settlement of But. AWM 018294

A male soldier looking out from an aeroplane window.

Flying Officer Francis Smith of 100 Squadron looks out of the rear hatch of a Beaufort bomber, A9-557. He was a member of the crew that flew this aircraft on thirty-three missions, including its last. On that flight, a bombing mission, it crashed at Tadji and was damaged beyond repair. Smith and his crew were all killed on 13 March 1945 during a bombing mission in another Beaufort. A defective fuse caused the premature explosion of one of the bombs, which destroyed their aircraft. This was almost certainly in support of the commandos' defence of Milak. AWM P02841.001

A line of male soldiers walk past a dead male soldier lying on the ground.

Australian infantry, probably of 2/2nd Battalion, pass a Japanese soldier killed a few minutes earlier during the Allied advance on But in March 1945. AWM 018301

An injured male soldier being helped across a road.

Private John Parkes of the 2/2nd Battalion is helped to a jeep-ambulance, probably of 2/7th Field Ambulance, after being hit by a Japanese bullet near But airfield on 17 March 1945. In this period, heavy rains made evacuation by road very difficult. AWM 018290

A male soldier talking to a bandaged man laying in a bed.

General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander in Chief of the Australian Army, talks to Lance Corporal Eddie Baker of the 2/7th Battalion on 20 March 1945. Baker, who had been wounded in the shoulder, was the only casualty of a patrol that had ambushed about thirty Japanese near Balif, killing eight and wounding three. General Blamey visited patients at the 2/11th Australian General Hospital during a tour of the Headquarters, 6th Division area. AWM 090112

A studio portrait of a male soldier.

Lieutenant Albert Chowne VC MM, 2/2nd Battalion. Chowne was killed in action on 25 March 1945 near Dagua. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for 'most conspicuous bravery, brilliant leadership and devotion to duty'. He led a charge in which he knocked out two enemy machine-guns, ignoring his two wounds while advancing 50 metres through intense fire. AWM 134484

A makeshift campsite with male soldiers and a large gun.

Near Dagua, a 25-pounder of the 2/2nd Field Regiment fires towards the Tokuku Pass area on 25 March 1945. This and other guns were supporting the infantry during the action for which Lieutenant Chowne was awarded the Victoria Cross. AWM 079925

Male soldiers walking in a jungle carrying a stretcher.

Exhausted stretcher-bearers of the 2/2nd Battalion bring in a wounded man from the front near Dagua on 27 March 1945. This was a hard day for the battalion, in which they lost three killed and fourteen wounded. In a report on the battalion's medical activities in March, the Regimental Medical Officer, Captain McLennan, described the stretcher bearers as 'excellent' in their work and knowledge, as well as 'courageous and quick to go forward'. AWM 090150

An aerial view of a coastline with smoke bellowing out and people visible on the beach.

Smoke billows from targets hit by Beaufort bombers on the northern New Guinea coast, possibly in March 1945. Japanese who have been 'smoked out' are running along the beach or standing in the water. AWM OG1589

Male soldiers gathered around a piece of machinery made with wood.

These Australians and about 200 New Guineans built Hayfield airstrip in April 1945. An improvised roller made from bush timber and dragged there by New Guineans represented the most sophisticated equipment available. The men are probably members of the pioneer platoon of the 2/7th Battalion. AWM 112652

A male soldier sitting and rolling a cigaretter with his gun leaning on him.

On 20 April 1945, Private Harry Bartholomew of the 2/1st Battalion sits outside a Japanese hut captured by his company in recent fighting. Four days earlier, he had been part of a section that had advanced into the fire lane of a heavy machine-gun, which had quickly killed one Australian and wounded another. Bartholomew then stepped into the open, firing his Bren gun from the hip and charging the enemy gun. After he killed the gunner, the remainder of the Japanese crew fled. Seizing the Japanese weapon, Bartholomew swung it round on its tripod and fired on the fleeing enemy. He killed one and wounded another. Bartholomew was awarded the Military Medal. AWM 091176

Armed male soldiers walking along a creek in the jungle.

Forward scouts of a patrol of the 2/1st Battalion move through typically rough country near Karawop on 22 April 1945. They are seeking a route of attack on the 1800 Feature, which their battalion captured a few days later. AWM 091156

Male soldiers by a tank in the jungle looking at a map.

Men of the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion and the 2/4th Armoured Regiment discuss souvenirs at Kalimboa village on 26 April 1945. Their combined forces had driven the Japanese out of several strong positions in the previous two days. One of two Matilda tanks that had featured in those operations forms a platform for the four tankmen: Trooper Douglas Schmidt, Sergeant Sam Nyman, Trooper Frank Ward and Trooper Donald Levy. When used, the tanks were very effective, though the terrain limited their mobility. The infantrymen are, from left, Privates Eric McDonald, Frank Jackson and Francis Everest. AWM 091261

Two male soldiers crouching down to an injured male soldier lying on a stretcher on the ground in front of a plane with another male soldier standing behind the plane.

A wounded soldier is checked over by RAAF medical personnel after being flown out of the Torricelli Range in an Auster during the Aitape-Wewak campaign in New Guinea in 1945. 16 and 17 (Air Observation Post) Flights flew Austers on artillery spotting, medical evacuation and light transport sorties in mainland New Guinea, Bougainville, New Britain and Borneo. (AWM OG2663)

A gun blazing fire at night.

Australians of the 2/3rd Field Regiment fire a 'Long Tom' 155-mm gun from the Naugub–Welubi area on 8 May 1945. As the regiment's historian put it, 'Night was turned into day when the “Long Toms” were fired'. The gun, one of two brought to the area in secrecy in late March, helped prepare the Australian assault on Wewak. At 10.30 pm on the same day, this and every other gun of the division fired one round in recognition of the end of hostilities in Europe. AWM 091715

A soldier lighting fire in a bush area

Private Arthur Willett of the 2/8th Battalion uses a flame-thrower against the Japanese at Wewak Point on 10 May 1945. The 2/8th Battalion's flame-throwers were detached to the 2/4th Battalion, which needed them in clearing the well-defended caves at the Point. One flame-thrower operator was badly wounded in this battle. The first use of a flame-thrower in action by Australian troops appears to have been in this campaign, on 2 May. AWM 091749

A ships deck crowded with male soldiers.

Crew members of HMAS Dubbo assist troops of Farida Force, possibly members of 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, into assault barges for the landing at Dove Bay, east of Wewak, on 11 May 1945. Dubbo was one of sixty minesweepers, commonly known as corvettes, built in Australia during the war. She had fired her first shots in anger just a few weeks earlier, on Anzac Day 1945, when she, Colac and Swan had bombarded Japanese positions on Muschu Island, off the New Guinea coast. She would provide valuable fire support to the operations of Farida Force. AWM 018496

A view of a beach with male soldiers disembarking from boats and making their way to shore.

Aerial view of 'Farida Force' landing at Dove Bay on 11 May 1945. There were 623 men in the force, including most of the 2/6th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment and elements of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and other units. The Australian 43rd Landing Craft Company brought them ashore. The landing encountered only 'a few monosyllabic rifle shots, raggedly spaced', wrote the commando regiment's historian, for the 'barrage seemed to have battered the beach into insensibility'. The Australians met 2/8th Battalion troops advancing from west of Wewak on 22 May. AWM OG2945

A studio portrait of a male soldier.

Private Edward 'Ted' Kenna VC, 2/4th Battalion. Kenna was awarded the Victoria Cross for 'magnificent courage and complete disregard for his own safety' in action near the Wirui Mission on 15 May 1945. His accurate shooting from a completely exposed position led to the capture of a bunker that had halted the advance. AWM 134485A

An Australian male soldier in a bunker is showing indigenous Papua New Guineans an object.

Sergeant Rowland Ayres of the 2/8th Battalion discovers a Japanese pistol while searching captured enemy positions on Hill One, near Mount Shiburangu, on 11 June 1945. The Australians lost 9 killed and 2 wounded that day and killed 33 Japanese. Ayres, who proved himself an intrepid patroller, shows the pistol to a member of the Royal Papuan Constabulary. This unit provided crucial support to the Australians in the Aitape–Wewak campaign. AWM 093051

Two armed male soldiers on a incline during a battle.

During the fight for Mount Shiburangu, Privates William Inglis and James Pye of the 2/8th Battalion provide covering fire against Japanese positions on the mountain, 27 June 1945. AWM 093451

An armed male soldier crouching down above the opening to a bunker.

Private Henry Davidson of the 2/5th Battalion examines one of 120 Japanese weapon pits on Kunai Spur in the Yamil area on 6 July 1945. The Japanese had held this ridge against heavy bombardment for three weeks. AWM 093838

Armed Australian male soldiers hoding Japanese soldiers prisoner.

Privates John Pitcher and Ron Woolley of the 2/5th Battalion, on Ulebilum Ridge, near Yamil, escort three Japanese prisoners back to Maprik on 8 July 1945. Two hundred and sixty-nine Japanese were taken prisoner in the Aitape–Wewak campaign. AWM 093892

Australian male soldiers haul up a gun while being assisted by indigenous Papuans.

A 75-mm mountain gun of 2/1st Tank Attack Regiment is hauled along Ulupu Ridge, with the assistance of thirty New Guineans, on 9 July 1945. It was used to support the 2/5th Battalion's attack. AWM 093952

Male soldiers in the foreground look on as smoke bellows in the background.

Members of the headquarters of the 2/8th Battalion and attached artillerymen observe the effects of the massive bombardment that accompanied the battalion's assault on 'The Blot' on 14 July 1945. The 2/1st and 2/2nd Field Regiments together fired a total of 4500 25-pounder shells over a 45-minute period. AWM 094011

Male soldiers gathered in a little clearing with logs.

Sappers of the 2/14th Field Company observe the effects of their handiwork on a Japanese bunker near the summit of the feature known as 'The Blot' on 14 July 1945. The explosion was caused by a blast bomb comprising a hand grenade attached to a tin full of about half a kilo of ammonal. Numerous blast bombs were used in the campaign, especially in the capture of Wewak itself. AWM 094029

A group of male soldiers grouped together and smiling.

Men of A Company, 2/8th Battalion, rest around a shell crater on 'The Blot', which they have just played a key role in assaulting, on 14 July 1945. All states were represented in this group of men from a battalion raised in Victoria. Such heterogeneity was typical of the infantry battalions by 1945. AWM 094025

Two male soldiers firing a big gun towards the jungle.

At Ulunkohoitu Ridge, near Yamil, Private Jack Beard and Corporal Cecil Hutchinson of the 2/6th Battalion fire their Vickers machine-gun in reply to fire from Japanese occupying the higher slopes on 18 July 1945. Australians captured the ridge that day. AWM 094353

A Japanese soldier presents a sword to a Anglo military officer in front of a large audience of soldiers.

Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi, commander of the Japanese XVIII Army, hands his sword to Major General HCH Robertson, General Officer Commanding 6th Division, on 13 September 1945. This was part of the surrender ceremony at Cape Wom, near Wewak. Adachi would commit suicide in a prisoner of war camp at Rabaul almost exactly two years later, after expressing shame at the loss of more than 100,000 men of his army since 1942. AWM 096225

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