The Markham and Ramu Valleys 1943-1944
This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in the Pacific War. It encourages Australians to learn more about the difficult campaigns waged in Papua New Guinea between 1943 and 1944.
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In October 1942, with the fighting on the Kokoda Track still raging, the Australian Army's commander-in-chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey, was already looking to seize the initiative elsewhere on the island of New Guinea. He focussed on the Markham Valley, reasoning that if Australian troops could be landed by air there, they could then advance towards and capture the strategically important Japanese base at Lae. That plan proved too ambitious for 1942, but it became a possibility after the defeat of the Japanese on the Papuan beachheads in January 1943.
General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA), issued directives in May 1943 that included the seizure of the Lae–Salamaua–Finschhafen–Madang area of New Guinea. The main force at his disposal for achieving this aim was the Australian Army, so General Blamey would control the operations. In May Blamey issued orders for the capture of Lae and the Markham Valley. The former would provide a port and the latter airstrips to support operations further north. The broad plan was to expel the Japanese from the Huon Peninsula and thereby dominate the Vitiaz Strait between mainland New Guinea and New Britain.
The task of capturing Lae was allotted to the 9th Division, which would first need to make an amphibious landing to the town's east. The 7th Division would simultaneously move into the Markham Valley, block Japanese reinforcement of Lae from Madang, and then move on Lae from the north-west. Once the 9th had secured Lae, the 7th could spread out north of the Markham Valley, securing or constructing more airfields.
Major General George Vasey, idiosyncratic but charismatic and inspired commander of the 7th Division, took the lead in modifying the original plan. Instead of marching to the Markham Valley through remote and exhausting country, the division's main body would be transported by air from Port Moresby. The American 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment would land at and seize an abandoned airstrip at Nadzab, in the Markham Valley. A few days beforehand, the Australian 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and the 2/6th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, would land at Tsili Tsili, cross the Markham River, march to Nadzab and there prepare an airfield for the flying-in of the 25th Brigade. Fortuitously, the 7th Division had recently conducted an exercise on airborne operations. Nevertheless, extraordinary efforts were required to complete the necessary planning in just under a month.
On 5 September, the American paratroops jumped successfully at Nadzab. As the eighty-seven aircraft passed over, the engineers and pioneers marching from Tsili Tsili to prepare the Nadzab airfield cheered at the spectacular sight. By throwing a bridge of folding-boats across the main channel of the Markham River, they reached Nadzab in the late afternoon.
Also arriving from Tsili Tsili that afternoon was a troop of 'paratroop-gunners'—members of the Australian 2/4th Field Regiment, who flew with their Short 25-pounder guns from Port Moresby to Tsili Tsili and then, after an hour's preparation, made the 10-minute flight to Nadzab, where they parachuted. Only one man was injured in the jump. After they landed, the guns soon followed, and by nightfall one was assembled and ready to fire.
Next morning, on 6 September, all available hands busily cut grass to prepare the Nadzab airstrip. This was the first step towards making Nadzab one of the busiest and largest airfields in New Guinea. More than forty transport aircraft arrived that day.
Early on 7 September, disaster struck the 2/33rd Battalion as its men waited in trucks at Jackson's airfield in Port Moresby for orders to board their C-47 transport aircraft. A Liberator bomber trying to take off struck a tree and then ploughed into five of the packed trucks. Every man in the vehicles was killed or injured, many suffering horrific burns. Sixty Australians died and ninety-two were injured.
Brigadier Ivan Dougherty, commanding the 25th Brigade, asked the surviving officers of the battalion whether they wished to proceed to Tsili Tsili. They did, and the men of the 2/33rd pulled themselves together for the journey. That day the 2/25th Battalion flew to Nadzab and dispersed in the Gabmatzung Mission area.
On 9 September the 2/25th began the 40-kilometre advance down the Markham Valley towards Lae. The following day it contacted the enemy, who fired as it approached Heath's Plantation, one of a series of plantations flanking the road. Skirmishing continued over the next two days, in which the 2/25th's forward company inflicted thirty-seven casualties. In the meantime, bad weather had delayed the flight of the 2/31st Battalion from Port Moresby. One participant, Lieutenant Jack Scott, described an abortive flight:
There was no seating accommodation; we sat on the metal floor and jammed ourselves against each other to protect the skin of our backsides as we were buffeted and slid around the floor of the aircraft. A few got sick enough to start an epidemic. The only repositories for our vomit were our steel helmets. Once filled we tried to hold them in an upright position until we landed.
On 13 September, after a successful flight from Moresby and a forced night march from Nadzab, the 2/31st caught up with the rest of the brigade and the advance began in earnest.
The already rough Markham Valley road to Lae soon became a quagmire under the feet of the soldiers who marched along it and the vehicles that rushed backwards and forwards to supply them.
There was heavy fighting on 13 September, when Japanese counter-attacks were driven off at Whittaker's Bridge and the Australians overran well dug-in Japanese at Heath's Plantation. Here Private Richard 'Dick' Kelliher, a 38-year-old Irishman in the 2/25th Battalion, came to the fore. Japanese machine-gun fire pinned down his platoon, and his section leader, Corporal WH 'Billy' Richards, lay wounded. Kelliher later explained subsequent events:
I wanted to bring Cpl. Richards back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from the stump where I was sheltering and threw a few grenades over into the position where the Japanese were dug in. I did not kill them all, so went back, got a Bren gun and emptied the magazine in the post. That settled the Japanese.
Another position opened up when I went on to get Cpl. Richards, but we got a bit of covering fire and I brought him back to our lines.
Kelliher was awarded the Victoria Cross. The 2/25th lost 10 killed and 18 wounded on 13 September, but inflicted about 100 casualties.
By 14 September, Vasey knew that the Japanese had begun evacuating Lae and were moving north between the 7th and 9th Divisions. He decided to bring the 21st Brigade to Nadzab for operations against this retreating force while the 25th Brigade continued the march on Lae.
That day, the 2/33rd Battalion took up the advance, marching towards Edwards' Plantation. Japanese resistance was much slighter than in the previous campaign, but there was still great tension as troops advanced through thick jungle and overgrown plantations and across streams, knowing they could be ambushed at any time. The 2/33rd suffered 27 casualties that day; its brigade had by now inflicted about 300 casualties on the Japanese. Valuable support came from the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, covering the right flank, and the 24th Battalion, which by numerous attacks on the enemy stronghold at Markham Point prevented its defenders from hampering the 7th Division advance. Several times,the enemy made a stand against that advance but was pushed back, to the satisfaction of both General Vasey and Brigadier Kenneth 'Phar Lap' Eather, who from his jeep urged his forward troops to take advantage of the enemy's wavering.
Characteristically, Vasey was frequently close to the forward troops. He wanted to get the 'feel' for the battle, to lift their morale, and to push them over the winning line in the race between the 7th and 9th Divisions for Lae.
On 15 September, the 2/33rd and 2/31st Battalions killed more than 100 Japanese in a fierce battle of encirclement at Edwards' Plantation. After Jacobsen's Plantation fell without a fight on the morning of 16 September, 2/25th Battalion troops pushed on and were the first to reach Lae.
Expecting to enter the town that day, the 9th Division had arranged for American aircraft and their own artillery to plaster it. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Marson of the 2/25th sent a message to the 9th Division headquarters:
25 Brigade in occupation of Lae 1100 hours [11.00 am] 16th September. Thanks for the arty support midday, but please don't blow our s___house down.
On being informed of the 7th Division's presence, the 9th Division's artillery immediately ceased firing. Winning this race was a great source of pride for the 7th Division. The 9th Division had faced greater human and natural obstacles, but the 7th Division had performed faultlessly, inflicting at least four times as many casualties as the 142 it suffered. Moreover, it had advanced more than 40 kilometres in less than two weeks, and had captured a key objective that it had not been expected to capture at all, let alone ahead of schedule.
Lieutenant Colonel Marson's colourful metaphor of Lae would have seemed apt to his men, for the devastated town stank of rotting food and inadequate Japanese hygiene. The pockmarked airstrip bore testimony to the effectiveness of Allied bombing. The 7th Division lost only thirty-eight killed in the Lae battle, and General Vasey rightly praised the efficiency of the medical staffs. Of his whole division he said:
... these fellows of mine are in marvellous form. I have never seen a body of men so physically and mentally fit. They ... have the Jap where they want him, and they have a strong feeling that everything is well organized and under control. Their remarks on this campaign as compared to our last one are most illuminating.
Advance to Dumpu
While the 25th Brigade approached Lae, the 21st Brigade chased the Japanese who had unexpectedly retreated from the town. They stayed just out of reach of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions, which Vasey recalled on 20 September. More than 6000 Japanese escaped, with orders to hold the Finisterre Range, Finschhafen and the Ramu Valley. The latter would soon be the 7th Division's goal.
The valleys of the Markham and Ramu Rivers were strategically important. Merging imperceptibly, they formed a 185-kilometre long stretch of relatively broad and flat country running from south-east to north-west between towering mountains. The grassy corridor was well-suited to airfields, the establishment and protection of which were crucial in this campaign.
Once it became obvious that Lae would fall earlier than expected, Australian plans to enter the Ramu Valley were accelerated. General MacArthur instructed Blamey to establish airfields at Kaiapit and Dumpu.
The 2/6th Independent Company was flown to a makeshift airfield from which it attacked and took Kaiapit in a bloody fight on 19 September. A numerically larger Japanese force arrived the following morning, only to be surprised and destroyed by the aggressive Australians. More than 200 Japanese were killed. Having achieved one of the greatest wartime successes of the independent companies, the commandos prepared an airstrip with the help of New Guinean labour. On the afternoon of 21 September, a company of the 2/16th Battalion arrived.
Within a few days, elements of all three 21st Brigade battalions had reached Kaiapit. The 2/27th flew in direct from Port Moresby. Little wonder that some were now referring to the 7th as 'Australia's first airborne division'. However, lack of air transport would prevent Vasey's third brigade, the 18th, from entering the campaign until January. Moreover, for the infantry in the valleys, there was still a great deal of marching ahead.
On the night of 28–29 September, Brigadier Dougherty was ordered to send troops across the Umi River. The 2/6th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, constructed an ingenious bridge of rubber boats. After the 2/2nd Independent Company ambushed hisforces at Kesawai on 29 September, Major General Nakai, the Japanese commander in the region, decided to leave only delaying forces in the valleys while preparing his main defensive positions on the formidable Kankiryo Saddle in the Finisterres.
On 30 September, the lead battalion, the 2/16th, crossed the divide between the Markham and Ramu Rivers. The following day, Vasey was told he could advance to take Dumpu, at the head of the Ramu Valley. Aided by independent company, Papuan Infantry Battalion and pioneer battalion patrols, the 21st Brigade battalions progressed rapidly despite sweltering heat. The 2/16th Battalion fought sharp actions on 2 and 3 October, losing 3 dead and killing 26.
The heat was oppressive, reportedly reaching 54 degrees Celsius in the kunai grass that covered much of the valley. On 4 October the 2/14th Battalion fought its first major action in the valleys. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, went forward almost alone to find water or signs of the enemy, and mistook a group of Japanese for his own men. He was shot in the hip and escaped death only by lying 'doggo' when the Japanese searched for him and his few companions. Eventually he was rescued and the enemy cleared. The battalion suffered 7 wounded, but killed 26 Japanese and captured their objective. On the same day, the 2/16th took Dumpu without a fight. The great Markham and Ramu Valleys were in Australian hands. In the words of the official historian, David Dexter:
The success of the 7th Division, however unspectacular it now appeared, had been won by fine leadership, stirring fighting qualities of the men and close cooperation of all arms.
For the time being, the division's role would be to safeguard the airfields at Nadzab, Gusap, Kaiapit and Dumpu, which from early October were valuable launch-pads for long-range American air attacks.
The valley itself might serve the same purpose for Australian ground attacks. With the Japanese concentrating on fighting the 9th Division in the Huon Peninsula, they could spare just one under-strength regiment to face any potential 7th Division challenge in the Finisterre Range—yet that range was eminently defensible.
Into the Finisterres
The 7th Division's role in the Ramu Valley early in October 1943 was primarily defensive, but it sent patrols into the foothills of the Finisterre Range to guard approaches to the valley. The main potential Japanese approach was via a major track, the northern stretches of which had been turned into a road, from Bogadjim through the Finisterres to Dumpu. Conversely, this was an avenue by which the Australians might advance on vital Japanese territory, though to do so they would first need to overcome formidable natural and man-made defences at Shaggy Ridge, a 6-kilometre long, 1700-metre high razorback spur that dominated the approaches to Dumpu along the Faria River. Beyond that lay another daunting obstacle—the 1250-metre high Kankiryo Saddle.
Following orders to safeguard this approach to Dumpu, Brigadier Dougherty sent the 2/27th Battalion into the mountains on 5 October. On the first day, the battalion reached its objective, Kumbarum, and in failing light and heavy rain occupied King's Hill, a commanding feature beyond it. After receiving supplies, the 2/27th Battalion advanced up the Faria River valley. Supported by the 2/4th Field Regiment's 25-pounder guns, on 6 October they occupied what came to be called Guy's Post. To the east of the 2/27th, the 25th Brigade's battalions were patrolling in force, and the following day the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions came forward to provide supporting patrols and work parties. On 8–10 October the 2/27th Battalion, under instructions to act as a 'battalion fighting patrol', captured high features subsequently designated Beveridge's Post, Trevor's Ridge and Johns' Knoll. The preliminary to the capture of the crucial Johns' Knoll was an ambush, described by John Burns in the 2/27th Battalion's unit history:
As Lieutenant MacDonald approached the foot of Johns' Knoll ... he found a party of about twenty enemy preparing a meal. The sentries were not alert and the party appeared to be unaware of any danger. Disposing his sections as silently as possible in the limited space, Lieutenant Gordon MacDonald roared his famous command that lives for ever with the battalion—'Here they are boys! Hop in for your bloody chop.'
The terrain in this area was too mountainous for air drops to be effective, so all depended on carrier lines.
On 11 October, a platoon of the 2/14th Battalion routed a Japanese company that had entrenched itself in a seemingly impregnable position across the 2/27th's line of supply, on Pallier's Hill. The inspiring leader of the final assault was Sergeant Lindsay Bear, who bayoneted two Japanese and ignored three wounds to reach the objective. While his section fought for the crest, another section arrived to support them. One participant, Corporal John 'Bluey' Whitechurch, described the outcome:
We could see [the Japanese] now and opened fire on their heads as they bobbed up above their foxholes ... Somebody gave a shrill blood-curdling yell that startled even us, and was partly responsible for some of the enemy running headlong down the ridge in panic. Unable to stop at the edge of the cliff, they plunged to their doom hundreds of feet below.
On 12 October, the Japanese sought to remove an obstacle across their lines of communication: the 2/27th Battalion on Johns' Knoll and Trevor's Ridge. The Japanese force was about 500-strong, supported by five 'woodpecker' heavy machine-guns, mortars, light machine-guns and, most alarming of all, two mountain guns, which had already caused Australian casualties. This force's main attention initially fell on Johns' Knoll and its garrison of just nineteen men under Lieutenant Robert Johns. A platoon joined the defenders after the first attack, during which the enemy got astride the battalion supply lines. Johns' Knoll was under fire from three sides during the subsequent three attacks. Section commander Corporal Paddy Carey was in the foremost position on the Knoll throughout the day. Several times Japanese came within metres of him, only to die or retreat.
Lieutenant Colonel John Bishop of the 2/27th Battalion was told to withdraw if he thought it warranted, but instead he sent in a counter-attack from two flanks. In heavy rain, it succeeded. Afterwards, Captain Seymour Toms' company, which had been out of communication, launched a highly successful surprise attack on the Japanese rear. Later that night the battalion received much-needed supplies: each man had an average of five rounds of ammunition remaining. For 35 casualties, including 7 dead, the 2/27th had killed about 200 Japanese and won a notable victory.
The 25th Brigade won a victory too. In a daring night attack on 10 October, its 2/33rd Battalion took the precipitous 4100 Feature. On 13 October, it lost three killed and twenty-one wounded while trying to push further north. The following day, the 2/31st Battalion found that the Japanese had abandoned the defences that had held up its sister battalion.
That day the 2/16th Battalion relieved the 2/27th, and soon found itself harassed by Japanese artillery fired at close range. The 2/27th went back to Guy's Post, negotiating sheer drops in freezing rain. While most of the battalion rested, Lieutenant Colonel Bishop ordered a composite company under Lieutenant Bob Clampett to occupy Shaggy Ridge, so-called after Clampett's nickname. Patrols soon discovered that Shaggy Ridge was occupied, but Clampett's company established a foothold on the southern slopes. Gaining a stranglehold on that gigantic feature would take months.
Physically demanding and dangerous patrolling characterized the following weeks. The front had stabilized, with the Japanese determined to hang on to Shaggy Ridge, Kankiryo Saddle and the Upper Faria River. Australian patrols on Shaggy Ridge found that the Japanese had occupied the vital points of high ground, which could not be outflanked or easily rushed.
General Vasey decided to use one brigade to maintain contact with the Japanese on the Bogadjim track and thus block the enemy's approach to the Ramu Valley. The other brigade he held in reserve in the Ramu Valley. On 8 November, the 25th Brigade relieved the 21st Brigade. Simultaneously, the Japanese supplemented their defence of the Finisterres with a second regiment.
Australian artillery, directed by Australian Wirraway and Boomerang pilots, was increasingly potent. The Boomerang fighters of 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) were unsuited to aerial combat, but were ideal tactical reconnaissance aircraft. One of their pilots, Flying Officer Alex Miller-Randle, described the difficulties of flying in the Finisterres:
Flying up a valley close to treetops was extremely dangerous because it was very difficult to judge the incline, [which was] often greater than the aircraft's maximum rate of climb, so that even with full throttle the plane could not climb out of the valley. Furthermore if the valley sides were ... narrowing sharply, it was very easy to misjudge the point where there was enough turning space left. Unfortunately an aircraft unlike a car or helicopter cannot stop and back off. There were many times when I thought I had misjudged it and came out with heart pounding.
Artillery and air support were indispensable in wearing down enemy positions. The Japanese were content to sit tight in their strongholds and leave the initiative with the Australians, who through their constant patrols grew tired but wiser about the tactical possibilities.
An epidemic of malaria was now hitting the 7th Division. In response, Land Headquarters announced on 29 November that all 7th Division troops must take two Atebrin tablets six days a week. Nevertheless, by the end of the campaign 13,576 members of the division had been evacuated sick. This represented 96 per cent of the division's average strength and 22 times as many casualties as the enemy inflicted. The great majority were malaria cases, though dengue fever constituted a sizeable proportion. By mid-December only two of Vasey's battalions had more than 500 men. Two had fewer than 400.
On the night of 12–13 December, approximately 300 Japanese attacked two 2/25th Battalion companies west of the Evapia River. After four and a half hours repelling attacks from three sides, the companies were low on ammunition and reluctantly withdrew, in good order. They had suffered 19 casualties, including 5 dead, but had killed about 100 Japanese. By the following day the Japanese raiders had abandoned their positions.
General Vasey visited the 2/16th Battalion on Shaggy Ridge on 17 December. Major Garth Symington, temporarily commanding the battalion, told Vasey he believed his men could capture The Pimple, a rocky eminence rising steeply about halfway along Shaggy Ridge. Vasey repeated the prevailing wisdom that the lack of room for manoeuvre around and on the crest rendered this position impregnable. Armed with Symington's confident reply, Vasey suggested to Brigadier Dougherty that the 2/16th try. Vasey's orders for the attack reportedly included the typical comment: 'The 7th Division will advance on a one-man front. Anyone disobeying this order will break his bloody neck'.
On Christmas Day, two days before the attack, Lieutenant Clampett described the ridge named after him:
There seems to be a bit of talk about old Shaggy Ridge which I must say is a beauty, and he has a few scars on it at the moment from Mortar and Arty bombs. It is as steep as hell on both sides and is only flat for a couple of feet on top, excuse language but it is the only way to describe it.
Australian plans required many more scars to be inflicted on the ridge in support of the two companies ordered to capture The Pimple and exploit 400 metres north of it. This area, reportedly held by three Japanese platoons, included three further humps. The supporting fire plan for the attack of 27 December was the most detailed and comprehensive yet used in New Guinea. Eight 25-pounders would soften up the defence and then support the assault. Aircraft would dive-bomb and strafe the target beforehand, and continue strafing during the action. The battalion's 3-inch mortars would also provide supporting fire.
By 8.00 am, heavy mists had cleared, permitting the aircraft and artillery to operate effectively. Many soldiers took up vantage points to watch the spectacular pounding of the enemy position by the mortars and Vickers machine-guns, the thousands of artillery shells and the Kittyhawk fighter-bombers with their 500-pound bombs.
The attackers travelled light, with arms, ammunition, webbing, choice of hat or helmet, a frugally packed haversack, and a field dressing. When the assault began, they had to climb a steep incline, negotiable in places only on hands and knees. The waiting Japanese were concealed in pillboxes and foxholes. A shower of grenades from one pillbox wounded two leaders on the left and halted their section. Corporal Mervyn Hall brought his section in and, though wounded, single-handedly wiped out the pillbox. His platoon then established a footing on the ridge.
In further hand-to-hand fighting, The Pimple and second pimple were captured within an hour of the attack commencing. A Japanese bunker that could not be outflanked halted an attempt to seize the third pimple. From the captured peaks, the Australians could see the north coast and direct artillery fire on to the enemy lines of communication.
The artillery fired 3368 shells in the two-hour attack that morning. Thanks largely to this bombardment, only two Australians were killed and seven wounded in the fight for The Pimple. Little wonder that later, when the 2/16th Battalion came out of the area, one tired soldier was seen to walk up to a 25-pounder, put his arm around the barrel and kiss it.
28 December saw more fighting. Through the night the Australians dug trenches and a track to obtain a better position to attack the enemy bunker that, despite having more than 100 grenades thrown at it, had hung on throughout the previous day. 7th Division engineers produced makeshift blockbuster bombs that killed the two brave Japanese who had held out. A daring charge by Lieutenant John Scott's platoon, of the 2/16th Battalion, including a steep climb that necessitated firing Owen guns one-handed, captured the third pimple—Green Sniper's Pimple. Lieutenant Samuel McCaughey's platoon captured the fourth pimple. This highest point on Shaggy Ridge was named after the platoon commander, who was killed by a shell-burst the following day.
The Japanese had suffered many more killed than the Australians. By the afternoon of 28 December, after a failed Japanese counterattack, the 2/16th had counted ninety-six Japanese dead.
On the last day of 1943, the 21st and 25th Brigades received the welcome news that they were to be relieved by the 18th and 15th Brigades respectively. In a sense it was a relief too for the 18th Brigade, which had been at Port Moresby since August.
18th Brigade on Shaggy Ridge
New Guinea Force ordered General Vasey in the New Year 'to contain hostile forces in the Bogadjim–Ramu area by vigorous fighting patrols, but without committing major forces'. Vasey officially encouraged his brigadiers to consider only 'vigorous local minor offensive action', but was already planning a large-scale advance on the vital Kankiryo Saddle, which was an ideal springboard for a march towards the north coast.
Brigadier Frederick Chilton, commander of the 18th Brigade, accordingly planned an advance in which the 2/9th Battalion would thrust along its one weapon-pit wide front on Shaggy Ridge, the 2/10th would advance to its right, and the 2/12th would make the main attack on the left flank towards the Protheros and Kankiryo Saddle. The Japanese had not been patrolling this area diligently.
Around the time of the brigade changeover, there was a fall back from Green Sniper's Pimple and McCaughey's Knoll because of the difficulty of supplying those isolated locations and evacuating wounded. The front line now rested on or just behind the so-called Intermediate Pimple. It would be necessary to retake it as well as the Green Sniper's Pimple and McCaughey's Knoll. The new front line was about 75 metres from the enemy, who during the 'quiet' period took shots at the Australians here. One Japanese sniper shot off a periscope in use there, Gallipoli-style.
Operation Cutthroat, the plan to seize Kankiryo Saddle, was elaborately prepared. Eleven 25-pounder guns of the 2/4th Field Regiment were dragged forward and concentrated in the Lakes–Guy's Post area, and with medium bombers and dive-bombers would provide formidable support to the forthcoming operations. The 2/9th Battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Clement Cummings, reminded the men on the eve of the offensive:
I wish to bring to your notice that the 2/9 Bn has never failed to gain its objective and has never given up any ground gained.
At 10.30 am on 21 January, Sergeant Ron McDowell led the 2/9th's forward platoon into the enemy pits on Green Sniper's Pimple. The Japanese were still reeling from a preliminary air strike, but the Australians only established control of it at 2.00 pm. The enemy soon opened fire with a 75 mm gun, mortars and machine-guns, and threatened a counter-attack. The fire became so intense that the Australians briefly abandoned Green Sniper's Pimple. However, by late afternoon this vital ground had been secured, at a cost of seven killed and seventeen wounded.
The 2/9th Battalion war diary described the problem of evacuating the wounded:
Stretcher-bearers worked splendidly under tremendous difficulties on the razor back ridges. Many cas[ualties] had to be dragged up the steep slopes with ropes and carried out on stretchers where there were barely footholds for one man let alone a stretcher party.
Shellfire inflicted most 2/9th Battalion casualties that day and would have caused more if not for events on the 2/12th Battalion's front.
The 2/12th advance had begun at 9.20 am. Men had to negotiate slopes so steep that in places they needed to use vines to pull themselves up. Their objective was Prothero 1, a key point in the defence of Shaggy Ridge and the location of the 75 mm gun that so discomfited the 2/9th that afternoon. The gun switched targets from the 2/9th to the 2/12th at about 3.00 pm, when its crew realised that the latter was less than 100 metres away. The gun wrought havoc among the attackers, but it and its crew were silenced thanks to artillery support and the courage and skill of Lieutenant Charlie Braithwaite's platoon. Notable was Private Richard Lugge, who eliminated a 'woodpecker' machine-gun in a pillbox supporting the gun.
The 2/12th Battalion, including many wounded, endured a damp and restless night near the gun. Japanese counter-attacks were repulsed. Winning this vital ground cost 13 Australian dead and 48 wounded. Among the stoic wounded was Private Roy 'Tex' Parnell, who on being told that his arm would have to be amputated said 'Okay Doc, whip it off', and had it removed on Prothero 1 before spending a grim night there. He died the following day.
The Japanese on Shaggy Ridge now had Australians of the 2/12th to their north on Prothero 1 and of the 2/9th to their south on Green Sniper's Pimple. They still held more than three kilometres of the ridge, yet their position was precarious—especially as, to their east, the 2/10th, which had progressed unopposed on the 21st January, was just 1500 metres from their main defences on Kankiryo Saddle.
The 2/12th resumed its advance early on 22 January. Captain Kevin 'KB' Thomas led his men in a cheering, firing charge. Snipers held up the advance, but a Bren gunner, Private Leonard Bugg, having discarded pouches that had been set on fire, charged and killed an enemy machine-gun crew. Prothero 2 was secured. A fresh company marched more than a kilometre south on Shaggy Ridge until halted by machine-gun fire. Through binoculars they could see the 2/9th.
The 2/9th made superb progress that day. After a preliminary bombardment, at 6.00 pm a company made a flanking attack along the near-perpendicular western slope of the ridge, and was only 40 metres from McCaughey's Knoll when the appalled defenders spotted and belatedly fired at them. One sniped from a treetop until felled by a Bren gunner. An Australian bayoneted one Japanese, but while withdrawing the blade was attacked by another. The two men wrestled each other over the cliff. The knoll was captured, and the Australians had by the end of the day advanced 550 metres. The distance between its foremost troops and the 2/12th's was now just over 800 metres. Both were held up only by machine-gun and artillery firing from in front of the 2/10th, which had also made excellent progress along Faria Ridge, on the right.
By midday of 23 January, two forlorn enemy counter-attacks had been repulsed and patrols of the 2/9th and 2/12th Battalions met on Shaggy Ridge.
Kankiryo Saddle fell soon afterwards. The enemy was determined to make a last ditch stand on the 1500-metre high Crater Hill, north-east of Kankiryo. This position was soon surrounded, and Brigadier Chilton decided to besiege rather than assault the well-entrenched Japanese. Some 2000 artillery shells were fired into it on 27–28 January. Crater Hill fell on 1 February to companies of the 2/9th and 2/10th. Frank Rolleston, a veteran of the 2/9th, described conditions there:
The scene on Crater Hill was the worst I ever saw during the war as far as damage from shelling and bombing was concerned, for almost every tree had been blasted or shattered, with some huge trees several feet in diameter broken in halves. Some of the craters from bombs were ten feet deep and thirty feet across, while fragments of human remains could be seen plastered high up on the battered trees still standing. Some of the enemy weapons were twisted up like wire from the heat and bomb blast.
That day, Chilton signalled Vasey: 'Task completed'. The Brigade patrolled, killing stray Japanese over the next few weeks, until relieved from 9–21 February. It stayed in the Ramu Valley until late April, soon after the 11th Division took over from the 7th Division. In its operations between 19 January and 6 February, the 18th Brigade killed more than 244 Japanese and lost 46 killed and 147 wounded. Chilton believed that of 790 Japanese holding the captured area on 19 January, about two-thirds had been killed or wounded. Australian Kittyhawks of 78 Squadron and Vultee Vengeances of 24 Squadron contributed significantly to this outcome after arriving at Nadzab in mid-January.
In late February, the 15th Brigade relieved the 18th Brigade and moved forward to catch the retreating Japanese. The Australians overcame sporadic opposition and captured Bogadjim on 13 April. On 24 April, a mixed force of 15th and 8th Brigade troops entered Madang, thus securing the Huon Peninsula.
The enemy had supposedly dubbed the 7th Division 'Vasey's Cutthroats'. Like other such epithets, it appealed to the Australians. The term implies 'murderers', which was inaccurate. From highest to lowest rank, the men of the 7th and other Australian units had won this campaign because of their efficiency as professional soldiers. Despite shortages of supplies, New Guinean carriers, support troops and headquarters staff, Vasey had for months prosecuted a successful offensive when his orders required him merely to be defensive. Thorough planning had been important, as had such careful husbanding of resources that artillery support was exceptionally effective, and the men at the sharp end never felt short of food and equipment.
The official history of the Australian Army's Markham-Ramu Valley campaign is David Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canberra, 1961). Quotes of the official historian are drawn from this book. Other important sources include original diaries, private records and manuscripts held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. These include the papers of Robert Clampett (AWM PR00876). Also in the Australian War Memorial collection are original unit diaries including that of Lieutenant Colonel Cummings' 2/9th Battalion (AWM52 file 8/3/9).
Unit histories from which quotes were drawn are John Burns, The Brown and Blue Diamond at War (Adelaide, 1960) being the history of the 2/27th Battalion; Allan Draydon, Men of Courage: A history of 2/25 Australian Infantry Battalion (Chermside, 2000) for the message of Lieutenant-Colonel Marson to 9th Division headquarters; and John Laffin, Forever Forward: The story of the 2/31st Infantry Battalion (Newport, 1994) for the quote of Jack Scott.
Memoirs and other first-hand accounts include the account by Richard Kelliher VC in Reconquest: New Guinea 1943–44 (Melbourne, 1944); and Frank Rolleston, Not a Conquering Hero (Mackay, 1984).
Other books noted are Phillip Bradley, On Shaggy Ridge: The Australian Seventh Division in the Ramu Valley from Kaiapit to the Finisterres (Melbourne, 2004) for the quotes of Alex Miller-Randle and 'Bluey' Whitechurch; and David Horner, General Vasey's War (Melbourne, 1992) for Major General George Vasey's praise of his 7th Division.
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