Milne Bay 1942

Papua New Guinea August - September 1942

This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in the Pacific War. It explores the role of Australians during the conflict at Milne Bay 1942. 

ISBN: 1 877007 13 7
Series: Australians in the Pacific War
Access a designed version to download or print
A map of Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea during the second world war.

Milne Bay 1942

There are no good places to fight a war, but Milne Bay, on the eastern tip of the island of New Guinea, despite being in an area of great natural beauty, was one of the worst. An Australian soldier who fought there in August 1942 recalled that there were two types of weather at the bay:

Summer time—rains every day. Winter time—rains all day.

Persistent and heavy tropical downpours produced acres of mud in which heavy military vehicles could be brought to a standstill. At times, unusual ways of moving on through the mud were resorted to:

The roads were bad and we often slid off. Whenever that happened, the native men got each side of the car and sang. On a special note they lifted in unison and carried the car back onto the road.

As a result of the damp and humid climate, malaria was endemic at Milne Bay. However, in mid-1942 this isolated region and its people were thrust into the midst of war. The supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, chose Milne Bay as a forward base from which to strike by air at the Japanese conquests in New Guinea and the islands to the north.

On 25 June 1942, an Allied convoy, escorted by HMA Ships Warrego and Ballarat, entered Milne Bay and landed a company of American engineers, along with a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) wireless station, Australian anti-aircraft units and small parties of infantry. Within weeks, the engineers, with assistance from local workers, had constructed an airstrip and two other sites were being cleared. The RAAF had also established a radar station—37RS—and from late July Kittyhawk fighter-bombers of Nos 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF and Hudson bombers of Nos 6 and 32 Squadrons RAAF were based at No. 1 Strip (Gurney). The runways at Gurney were covered with metres of Marsden Matting, a steel mesh designed to help counteract the mud. Ron Kerville, No. 76 Squadron, described the delights of landing at Gurney:

... water on the runway was inches deep in places causing damage to flaps when landing—aircraft were covered in mud, which hardened on the wing tips when airborne slowing down the forward speed considerably. Windscreens and perspex were always filthy—brakes bound due to mud intruding and frequently tyres would skip distances of 100 yards—the metal mesh tearing pieces out of them ... The flaps were susceptible to severe damage from mud thrown up by the wheels.

To guard this new advanced base, two brigades of Australian infantry, with attendant artillery and other support units, were sent to Milne Bay. These included the 7th Brigade (9th, 25th and 61st Battalions), the 18th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force (2/9th, 2/10th and 2/12th Battalions) and the 9th Battery, 2/5th Field Regiment. The 18th Brigade had fought in North Africa during the famous siege of Tobruk between April and November 1941 and returned with the 7th Division to Australia in early 1942. By mid-August there were 8824 Allied army personnel at Milne Bay—7459 Australians and 1365 Americans. In overall command was Major General Cyril Clowes.

Milne Bay did not feature only in Allied war plans. During the night of 21–22 July, a Japanese invasion force from Rabaul, New Britain, landed at Gona, on the north Papuan coast. This force was intended to fight its way over the Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Track and attack Port Moresby. From mid-July also, the Japanese planned to seize Milne Bay, preparatory to a landing at Port Moresby, as their Gona force descended on the town from the mountains.

The Japanese opened their attack on Milne Bay with a surprise air raid on 4 August 1942. Little proper preparation had been made on the ground for this eventuality and, as the enemy planes came in over Gurney, Leading Aircraftman Arthur Griffiths and his mate leapt for cover in a trench one third of a metre deep and one metre long:

... [we] were out of our tent and into that small trench in a flash, and somehow we squeezed in and covered our heads with our tin hats until it was all over. Later, we tried to get back into that trench, but it was impossible. It is surprising what one can do in a panic.

The raid destroyed one Kittyhawk on the ground, but six Australian fighters had been on patrol, and one of them, piloted by Flying Officer Peter Ash, shot down an enemy bomber.

It was No. 76 Squadron's first success at Milne Bay. The Japanese returned on 11 August, and a much more intense air battle developed, during which it is thought the enemy lost four aircraft. However, it also resulted in the deaths of four Australian pilots. The No. 75 Squadron doctor, Flight Lieutenant Bill Deane-Butcher, went up the bay by launch to retrieve the body of Flying Officer Mark Sheldon:

[He] had been buried close to the village [Divinai] in a clearing and surrounded by a ring of shells and hibiscus blooms. I could not contemplate disturbing the grave. I had no suitable equipment and the prospect of loading his exhumed body into an unstable dinghy and paddling out to the launch was daunting. How could I handle the remains with dignity and respect? For two days I chipped away with a mallet and chisel creating a timber cross on which I carved Mark's name and particulars, and planted it at the head of the grave. He was left in peace.

By mid-August, Clowes was confidently expecting a Japanese invasion of Milne Bay. Keeping the bulk of his force back around the airstrips, he positioned two companies of the 61st Battalion forward along the north shore of the bay where he expected the enemy to land. By 25 August, the only marine presence in Milne Bay was the transport ship Tasman and the destroyer HMAS Arunta. In view of the impending attack, both ships were ordered away to Port Moresby. Leading Telegraphist Ken Allen was on the Arunta as it cleared the bay and headed through the China Strait:

I was on the upper deck ... when a group of Flying Fortresses quite low, flew over us ... To my horror tracers started to streak upwards from the Tasman, to be answered immediately by the bombers. Fortunately it stopped at that and the bombers disappeared.

At 10 am on 25 August 1942, a Flying Fortress of the 435th Squadron, United States Army Air Forces sighted, heading south from Rabaul, New Britain, three Japanese cruisers, two large transport ships, two tankers and two minesweepers. It was the Milne Bay invasion force. A strike force of Kittyhawks and a Hudson bomber took off from Gurney to intercept the Japanese ships. Because of cloud cover, the Australians had to make a dangerous low-level attack. Sergeant Frank Cardin, a wireless/air-gunner, was in the Hudson as they came in for their bomb run on one of the troop transports:

The sky was full of flak—black puffs of explosives ... Our first bomb was a near miss and we strafed as we passed over. We then went round again and this time ... dropped the remainder of our bomb load. We believed we hit the ship with one of them. On this pass a Jap bullet entered the side of the plane, just missed Geoff Brown's head and passed through my right footrest, shattering same and cutting off power to the turret.

Another Hudson of No. 6 Squadron, at 6pm, made a lone attack on the Japanese fleet. Despite the best efforts of the RAAF, however, little damage was done to the invasion force and the Japanese sailed on. Close to midnight, as the enemy ships entered and cruised down the north shore of Milne Bay, villagers and men of the 61st Battalion heard the throb of their engines.

Brigadier John Field, commanding officer, 7th Brigade, had been worried about D Company, 61st Battalion, which was stationed well up the north shore of the bay. Towards midnight on 25 August, two luggers, the Bronzewing and the Elevala, were attempting to lift off part of D Company when they ran straight into Japanese marines coming ashore in barges. The Elevala managed to escape but the Bronzewing was sunk and a number of men, who were later put to death, captured. Corporal Frank Fraser dived overboard from the Bronzewing and reaching the shore, escaped into the bush. After a painful night during which he was hunted by the enemy, sustained severely lacerated feet and was eaten by leeches, he reached a mountain ridge well above where the Japanese had landed:

... I looked behind and down to the Bay. There was fog on the water, but I could see the bulky superstructure of the warships and transports and I could hear the roar and rumble of land vehicles. And then I heard the hornet whine of aircraft. A squadron of Kittyhawks came in low over the beach strafing the area established by the Japanese. I cheered out loud, cheered the RAAF and cursed the Japanese until I became hoarse and remembered where I was. Too close, much too close.

The Kittyhawk's entry into the developing battle was to prove of critical importance. Their opening attacks on the enemy base area smashed many landing barges, making it impossible for the Japanese to undertake water borne flanking movements along the coastline of the bay. Much equipment and ammunition was also destroyed. Later, damaging attacks on the landing area on the morning of 26 August were also made by USAAF bombers operating from Charters Towers, Queensland, and an American bomber sank one of the Japanese transport ships as it retreated out to sea. Throughout the day, as the Japanese pushed westwards along the shore, Kittyhawks strafed them again and again from treetop level. At Gurney, the RAAF ground crews were kept busy:

... how the armourers slaved. I had every available person belting up ammo, cooks and all and I was flat out with a ute delivering ammo from the belting up area to the aircraft. The only way I could see which was the latest returning aircraft was to observe which one had the most smoke belching from the gun barrels. They no sooner took off and the wheels were up and they were nose down firing—35,000 rounds in one day is a lot of bullets.

The repeated Kittyhawk attacks had some effect. Lieutenant Chikanori Moji, a marine of the 5th Kure Special Naval Landing Force, wrote:

We were losing our composure. I felt a cramp in the stomach, everything disintegrating and all order lost. The easy going feeling that if we went on we would certainly succeed, had completely disappeared ... we sat on fallen trees and remained silent.

While Moji may have personally felt somewhat unnerved under the Kittyhawk attacks of 26 August, the Japanese landing force was still advancing steadily along the north shore of Milne Bay towards the airstrips. Before dawn that morning, a patrol of the 61st Battalion led by Lieutenant 'Bert' Robinson came into contact with the enemy and a firefight ensued, during which a number of Australians were killed or disappeared. A Japanese tank appeared, and Robinson personally shot the tank commander as he inadvertently stood up in his turret. By dawn, Robinson's men were back in his company's main position under the command of Captain Charles Bicks at the KB Mission.

During daylight on 26 August, extra men and equipment were hurried forward to reinforce Bicks. By nightfall, he had led his men back to new defensive positions east of the KB Mission. There, at 10pm in the moonlight, the Japanese struck again at the 61st. An enemy flame-thrower came into operation but was put out of action with well thrown grenades. A Japanese destroyer came close inshore and shelled the Australian positions, but to little effect as it could not depress its guns low enough. Enemy pressure on Bicks and his men was relentless, and eventually he led them back to a new line west of the Gama River. In the early afternoon of 27 August, the 61st, which had borne the brunt of the early fighting against the Japanese advance, was ordered back to the base area at the head of Milne Bay and gradually relieved by the 2/10th Battalion, AIF.

Right through the first two days of the battle, the RAAF Kittyhawks and the Hudson bombers continued to harass the Japanese. Late on 26 August a Hudson of No. 6 Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Robert Yewart, successfully set alight with bombs a number of fuel drums floating in the water near the Japanese base. A large blaze ensued. Early on the morning of 27 August, Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull, No. 76 Squadron, a veteran of the air war in the Middle East, spotted a tank while leading another attack on the base. At dusk, Turnbull set out with Flight Lieutenant Ron Kerville to find and destroy the Japanese armour. As they came in to attack, Kerville saw Turnbull dive and fire a long burst:

He carried the dive very low and his aircraft, during the recovery, turned over, hit the trees and disappeared into the dense undergrowth. I called upon the radio in the hope he was not badly hurt—but unfortunately he was killed.

Turnbull's death was a shock to the pilots of the Kittyhawk squadrons, but his position as the commanding officer of No. 76 Squadron was quickly taken by another Australian air ace, Squadron Leader Keith 'Bluey' Truscott. Turnbull's body was eventually found on 4 September and recovered for burial by a patrol from the 2/12th Battalion. The No. 3 Airstrip at Milne Bay was later renamed Turnbull Strip.

At this point in the developing battle, Major General Clowes was uncertain of Japanese intentions. Some intelligence, later to be proved wrong, suggested that 5000 Japanese had been put ashore. Further landings might be planned and, while the Australians ruled the skies above Milne Bay, the Japanese navy ruled the waters of the bay itself. Clowes, therefore, had held back his AIF troops for later counter-attacks and allowed the relatively inexperienced militiamen of the 61st and 25th Battalions to take the brunt of the early fighting. On 27 August, however, he sent the 2/10th forward to take up positions west of KB Mission to await events. They did not have to wait long.

At 7.45 pm on 27 August a Japanese tank, its lights full on, in the rain and darkness, approached the 2/10th positions. Minutes later an eerie chanting broke out from the Japanese lines. It stopped and:

... one voice (and a beautiful voice it was) would recite for about a minute, after which the chant would be taken up by a number of other voices ... Upon the second group completing their recitation, a third group, obviously comprising some hundreds of the enemy, and closer again, would sing in sonorous unison. The procedure was completed three times.

At 8pm, the Japanese infantry attacked, supported by two tanks. The tanks came right in among the Australians and tried to run individuals down as well as firing their machine guns. Attempts to stop them with sticky grenades (a type of grenade that would supposedly stick to the side of a tank) failed. To try and confuse the 2/10th the Japanese infantrymen yelled out phrases in English—'Take it easy—don't fire', 'Pull back Dig', 'Is that your Mum'. In the hours before midnight the 2/10th sustained a number of determined enemy attacks but their casualties began to mount and the battalion began to fall back.

Confused fighting ensued during the remaining hours of darkness on 28 August but, by first light, the Japanese and their tanks were still pressing forward towards No. 3 Airstrip. As they neared the strip, Sergeant Stan Steele, 25th Battalion, with about sixteen men, held their ground. Steele had prepared a field of fire for a machine-gun down a clearing intended as an aircraft bay. As the Japanese soldiers appeared in this clearing, Steele and his men shot them down. This action went on for three hours between 5 and 8 am, during which time it was estimated that between forty and fifty Japanese were killed. Steele's stand broke the impetus of the advance and the Japanese now pulled back. The Japanese tanks, which had spearheaded their advance, were by this time bogged down in the Milne Bay mud and were inoperable.

The Japanese used 29–30 August to regroup and await reinforcements. The fierce fighting during the advance to the edge of No. 3 Airstrip had taken its toll and the soldiers were exhausted. During that night, fresh Japanese troops were put ashore at the original landing place on the north shore of Milne Bay. It was then agreed among the enemy commanders that the reinforcements and the regrouped original force would head as rapidly as possible to the strip and attack it in the dark of 30–31 August.

The lull in the fighting allowed Clowes to reorganise his forces for the defence of No. 3 Airstrip. This large, cleared space was suddenly of great tactical value, as it stood in the way of further enemy progress towards Gurney and the heart of the Milne Bay base. Down the middle of the strip ran a barbed wire fence and there was a minefield on its northern side. On the southern side, Clowes placed the 25th Battalion, closest to the sea, and the 61st Battalion inland to the west and along higher ground, known as Stephen's Ridge. Vickers heavy machine-guns, mortars and anti-aircraft guns also guarded the Australian side of the strip. Further back were the 25-pounder guns of the 2/5th Field Regiment. The 2/12th Battalion was also ordered up from the rear, ready to begin a counter-attack back along the north shore towards KB Mission. Everything was now ready for the expected Japanese attack, and as the night of 30– 31 August lengthened, men settled down to wait.

At 3 am on 31 August 1942, a loud metallic clang was heard. Flares went up and by their light the defenders of No. 3 Airstrip could see Japanese soldiers bunched among the palm trees on the far side of the strip. Artillery and mortar shells were soon falling on the enemy position. As the Japanese tried to cross the open strip, rifles, machine-guns, mortars and artillery tore into their frontal charges. Corporal Col Hoy, 61st Battalion, witnessed the incredible scene:

I could see the seething movement of brown uniforms under the flare, heard a Japanese bugle and guns all around opened up in a deafening chorus while bullets were zipping and whizzing past just above our heads. More Australian flares lit up the Japanese advance and a storm of rifle and machine gun fire flattened the enemy groups. But more human waves rose up from the darkness and joined in ... Time and again the Japanese appeared to have regrouped in the darkness only to run straight into another impassable cross fire and inevitable death.

Unable to make headway directly across the strip, the Japanese now tried to work their way round to the north. Here they met the fire of the 61st Battalion positions along Stephen's Ridge and were repelled. At this point an enemy signal sounded the retreat:

In the lull which preceded the dawn three bugle calls rang loud and clear from the darkness of the Japanese position. It seemed as though the invaders were being plucked back by shrill notes.

As the enemy soldiers moved back, the men of the 2/12th Battalion followed them hard. Beyond No. 3 Airstrip, the sight of dozens of Japanese dead met them. This 'Avenue of Death' shocked Ken Davies, 2/12th Battalion, and, despite his knowledge of the cruelty for which Japanese soldiers had already made themselves infamous in the Pacific war, he witnessed a sight which moved him:

I saw a Jap Medical Corps soldier kneeling with a wounded comrade cradled in one arm, holding a water bottle to the lips of a casualty—frozen in death.

That day, the 2/12th met significant opposition from snipers and from Japanese pretending to be dead until the Australian soldiers had passed—then they would rise and fire from the rear. This practice naturally made the Australian soldiers careful and, in the words of the Australian official historian, the 2/12th 'developed an extraordinary quickness in their reactions and were merciless in ensuring that everybody really was dead'. By the evening of 31 August, the 2/12th had reached KB Mission. Here two companies settled in for the night while two other companies and battalion headquarters went into a defence perimeter at the Gama River, where they were joined by a company of the 9th Battalion.

As the 9th Battalion men approached the 2/12th line, a force of about 300 Japanese suddenly appeared, coming up the coast road and heading to the east. They were spotted by Merv McGillvery of the 2/12th, who was up a coconut tree at the time:

He saw the Japs and warned those on the ground, who passed the word along. Everyone waited until they were at point blank range and had bunched up prior to fording the river. Then we opened fire.

The battle raged for about two hours and approximately ninety Japanese were killed or wounded. The remainder made off over the Gama River and were later fired on by other members of the 2/12th from positions at KB Mission.

Between 1 and 6 September, the Australians pressed forward against Japanese positions along the north shore of Milne Bay, gradually driving the enemy back to his initial landing site of 25 August. During those days the strafing of the RAAF Kittyhawks and the fire of the 2/5th Field Regiment once again supported the infantry. Given the thick jungle undergrowth, it was difficult to range the guns properly and to make sure the shells fell on the enemy in front of the advancing infantry. Gunner Roy Venner, 2/5th Field Regiment, described one hazardous method used by one of the regiment's forward observation officers, Captain Norm Tinkler. From a forward area, Tinkler, with Venner in tow, would lay a phone line up to a point where they could hear Japanese voices:

He then calmly calculated (presumably in his head) to drop a shell well out into the bay, make a correction, then another shell, and in a very short time had me worrying and wondering why he seemed intent on blowing the pair of us to hell. The next one, though, didn't go into the water but right where the voices were. With that the Boss said 'Open gunfire' (I forget how many rounds) and then, 'Let's get out of here'. Whew! Did I get out!

As they pulled back, the Japanese put up a hard fight. To wrest determined enemy soldiers from carefully sited ambush positions led to many casualties. On the morning of 3 September, the 2/9th took over the advance along the bay from the 2/12th west of the Elevala Creek. Here a Japanese defensive position had given the 2/12th much trouble and the 2/9th went at it with sixty men. Within minutes, thirty-four Australians had been shot down. Lieutenant Colin Fogg, 2/9th Battalion, was struck in the head and left for dead in a creek but he was rescued and dragged to safety by his batman, Private Cedric Reid, although Reid's right arm had been shattered by a bullet. In this same attack, Lance Corporal John Ball of the 2/9th, a 'giant of a man', charged an enemy machine-gun, putting it out of action but dying himself, as the official history states, 'almost at the muzzles of the guns'. These were desperate, small-scale actions typical of the nature of the jungle warfare being waged by Australians and their Japanese enemies in New Guinea.

Of all the actions of the 2/9th Battalion at Milne Bay, none has been better remembered than that fought on the afternoon of 4 September 1942 near Goroni. At 3.15 pm, after preliminary artillery and mortar fire, two companies began an attack on enemy positions across the Goroni River. Captain Alexander Anderson's company was held up across the Goroni by intense fire and Anderson was wounded. Two attempts to take the enemy machine-gun posts failed. Corporal John French, finding his section held up and pinned down by the fire from three enemy machine-guns, ordered his men to take cover. He then went forward alone and silenced one of the guns with grenades. Then, armed with a Thompson sub-machine-gun, he charged another post, firing as he went. Although badly hit, he continued his attack and his men heard the enemy gun fall silent. When they came up they found French dead in front of the third enemy post. Corporal John French, 2/9th Battalion, of Crow's Nest, Queensland, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery that afternoon at Goroni. In Crow's Nest, French's distraught fiancee described him to the newspapers as one:

Who would never ask any comrade to do anything he would not be prepared to undertake himself ... we don't know the worth of our quiet boys until they are called upon to do something big.

Fighting dragged on to 6 September, as the 2/9th advanced into the centre of the Japanese landing area and main base. Further firefights cost lives but the Japanese were in full retreat and beaten. This area eastwards beyond the Goroni River was full of enemy equipment, which the Australians captured. Here too was the physical evidence of the devastating effect of the early RAAF Kittyhawk attacks—broken trees, bomb craters and destroyed landing barges. On the night of 6–7 September, Japanese warships evacuated the survivors of the landing force:

We waited as patiently as we could, not knowing how many warships were at sea, but at least by leaving land we were escaping a death trap. To us, this peninsula at the east end of New Guinea was a nightmare of a place ... I grasped the hand extended from the side of the ship and was dragged on to the deck where there were those previously evacuated, some lying, some seated. They were silently grouped in the darkness as if suddenly overtaken by exhaustion. They had the air of a defeated force.

Moji and those of his comrades rescued by the Japanese navy were lucky. Throughout the thirteen days of the battle, one of Clowes' principal concerns was the fact that the Allies were unable to control the sea approaches to Milne Bay at night and Japanese warships were able to roam there at will during the hours of darkness. On 6 September the transport Anshun from Townsville, with much needed reinforcements and supplies, slipped into Milne Bay at dawn, escorted by HMAS Arunta. That afternoon, while the Anshun remained tied up at the head of the bay, Arunta put to sea, where First Mate Tom Minto of the hospital ship Manunda, which was just entering Milne Bay, observed her:

As we neared the land an Australian destroyer steamed out of the [China] Strait and passed us at high speed. It was the HMAS Arunta. We wondered at his haste. We had an answer within a few hours. He was a very wise man indeed to avoid battle with an enemy cruiser.

As the Anshun continued with her unloading through the night, two enemy warships— the cruiser Tatta and the destroyer Arashi—moved up Milne Bay towards the transport. As the Tatta approached the Anshun, the warship switched on its searchlights, lighting up the Anshun, and began shelling. Able Seaman Gavin Moodie, RAN, a gunner on the Anshun, rushed to his gun and tried to engage the cruiser. This was of little avail against the enemy shells. Those shells that did not hit and explode were, in Moodie's words, 'skimming across the deck like freight trains'. Eventually, the Anshun keeled over and sank, although many of the Chinese crew managed to escape. Some, however, were killed, blown to pieces by the shells. The Japanese now moved off and fired at positions along the shore, where two soldiers were killed and twelve wounded.

Twice that night, the enemy ships illuminated the Manunda, whose white and green hull and Red Cross markings were clearly visible, but the ship was not fired upon. The Japanese warships returned to the bay on the following night and carried out desultory shelling of shore positions. Apart from some air raids, these virtually unopposed night sweeps of the Tatta and the Arashi were the last significant actions of the Japanese at Milne Bay.

On the morning of 7 September, the Manunda came close inshore and began to board the seriously sick and wounded. Most were, no doubt, glad to see the back of Milne Bay. The ship's First Mate, Tom Minto, recalled one man's valedictory address to New Guinea:

He was on a stretcher lying on his stomach, apparently wounded in the buttocks. When he reached the main deck rail of Manunda he said, 'New Guinea. Land of dusky maidens, lush forests and tropical fruits. I left Australia 14 days ago and all I have seen is rain and mosquitoes and now I am on my way home with a cut in the bum.

Before dark, Manunda weighed anchor and, heading at full speed for the China Strait, set course for Australia.

One aspect of the Milne Bay fighting which must not be forgotten is the terror and disruption it brought to the local population. The Japanese landing force behaved in an often brutal manner in their temporary occupation of the north shore of the bay, resorting at times to torture in order to extract information about Allied positions. Some Australian prisoners were similarly tortured and put to death. During the war itself, Sir William Webb, Chief Justice of Queensland, was appointed by the Australian Government to investigate the issue of alleged war crimes at Milne Bay during the campaign. Webb produced a number of reports on war crimes that still make chilling reading. Most, although not all, of the incidents at Milne Bay relate to the extortion of information with extreme violence, usually leading to the death by bayoneting of the individual concerned.

Despite the obvious risks, local people were still willing to help Allied servicemen in need. The RAAF had a number of motor launches at Milne Bay on standby to pick up downed pilots and to assist with carrying troops and gathering intelligence. On 29 August 1942, one of these launches was discovered in the harbour by the Japanese destroyer Urakaze. Shells from the warship sank the boat, and one of the survivors, Aircraftman John Donegan, drifted for eighteen hours before being washed up near Divinai village on the north shore of the bay. He was found and carried back to the village by Kidloni Luka. Donegan's arm was badly injured, and he was placed in the care of a mission-trained nurse, Taulebona Maiogura. She nursed Donegan and hid him from the Japanese in an upturned canoe. Eventually, he was rowed to safety across the bay. After the battle was over, Maiogura and other local people received Loyalty Medals from the New Guinea administration for their support of the Allies.

At Milne Bay the Japanese intelligence failed them badly. Thinking there were only about twenty to thirty aircraft and a few companies of infantry to guard the airstrips, they put ashore a force of approximately 2000 men, most of them marines of the 5th Kure Special Naval Landing Force, the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and the 5th Yokosuka Special Landing Force. To oppose them, Clowes had at his disposal approximately 4500 infantrymen, three battalions of whom were seasoned AIF veterans of the Middle East war. In his report on the battle, Clowes estimated that the Australians killed 700 Japanese. Australian casualties amounted to 353, of whom 161 were killed or missing. His men, he felt, had gained useful experience of jungle warfare and much useful enemy equipment had been captured. One feature of the battle he singled out for special mention was the extraordinarily close and vital cooperation between the Army and the RAAF:

Throughout, pilots were most eager to operate in the face of most adverse weather conditions and to do their utmost in support of the ground forces, by way of low ground strafing, bombing and reconnaissance. I wish to place on record my appreciation of the magnificent efforts on the part of our RAAF comrades. The success of the operation was in great measure due to their untiring and courageous work ...

However, Clowes had also been lucky at Milne Bay with regard to the number of Japanese sent against him. Initially, the Japanese commanders in Rabaul had envisaged a much larger force for Milne Bay, but just over two weeks before the operation was due to proceed, American marines landed in force on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and Japanese troops intended for Milne Bay were diverted to meet this new threat.

Strategically, the defeat of the Japanese at Milne Bay shattered the Japanese plan for a further movement by sea against Port Moresby. Any chance that that town could be captured now rested with the enemy force led by Major General Tomitaro Horii fighting its way over the Owen Stanley Range along the Kokoda Track. As the Japanese withdrew from Milne Bay, Horii's men were still advancing towards Port Moresby. However, perhaps the most significant effect of the Milne Bay battle was on the morale of Australian and other Allied forces in the Pacific and Asia. Up to that point, the Japanese had carried all before them on land. Milne Bay showed that the Japanese soldier was not invincible, and Sir William Slim, the British commander in Burma, later summed up what Milne Bay had meant for his men:

We were helped by a very cheering piece of news that now reached us, and of which, as a morale raiser, I made good use. In August and September 1942, Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army ...

Whatever general conclusions can be drawn about the significance of the Battle of Milne Bay, those who fought it on the ground had a strong sense of what they had achieved. Before they left Milne Bay in March 1943, soldiers of the 61st Battalion nailed two signs to a bamboo tree stump at the edge of the No. 3 Airstrip. The words on one of them spoke of the men of the 7th and 18th Brigades who had 'given their lives in defending Turnbull Field'. The other summed up the battle succinctly:

This marks the western most point of the Jap advance, Aug–Sep 42.

85 unknown Jap marines lie buried here.

A portrait of a male military officer with a pipe in his mouth.

Major General Cyril Clowes, commander of the Australian forces at Milne Bay, 1942. Clowes' chief of staff, Colonel Frederick Chilton, wrote of him: He had the reputation of being a man of very few words ... even when you got to know him. He was known as Silent Cyril amongst his contemporaries. He was a very good commander in my book ... a very able man, a brave man—all the qualities. [Chilton, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 104] AWM 013337

Indigenous people in the water with steel barrels.

Local people help to bring ashore drums of petrol at Milne Bay, July 1942. AWM 148937

A military jeep crossing a river over a bridge.

A bridge at Milne Bay sags due to floodwaters, August 1942. During the Milne Bay fighting, Driver Cec Platt drove the Milne Bay commander, Major General Cyril Clowes, through a flooding creek: We were about three-quarters of the way across when the motor started to miss a few times. I worked the foot a bit and the motor started to pick up again but while I was doing this I glanced across at the General and noticed that his knuckles were white with his grip on the door. [Platt, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 53] AWM 090763

A line of male soldiers marching up a dirt road and passing armoured vehicles.

An Australian patrol (61st Battalion) passes one of the two Japanese tanks used in their advance towards No. 3 Airstrip, Milne Bay, August 1942. Corporal Dave Summers, 61st Battalion, recalled the tanks in action: It proceeded in a sequence of ... move forward with headlights on—stop—lights off—open up with its forward machine gun with a sustained burst—then repeat the procedure over again. [Summers, quoted in James Watt, The 61st Battalion, Loftus, 2001, p. 93] AWM 013320

Male soldiers repairing mechanical equipment under a plane.

RAAF ground crew, No. 75 Squadron RAAF, bombing-up a Kittyhawk, Milne Bay, August 1942. AWM P02018.128

A male soldier with a flame thrower strapped to his back.

A Japanese flame-thrower captured at Milne Bay. A flame-thrower was used against the 61st Battalion on the night of 26–27 August 1942: Tomlinson [Lieutenant C Tomlinson] saw a sheet of blinding fire: a Japanese flame-thrower was in action. He waited for the next spread of flame. When it came he deluged with grenades the area from which it originated. The flamethrower went out of action. [Dudley McCarthy, South West Pacific Area: First Year, Canberra, 1962, p. 165] AWM 026444

Smoke billowing from a aeroplane on the ground.

An American Liberator bomber burns at Gurney Strip, Milne Bay, 27 August 1942. The bomber was hit during one of the fiercest Japanese air raids on Gurney Strip during the Milne Bay battle. Flight Lieutenant Ron Kerville, No. 76 Squadron RAAF, recalled the attack:

... this strafing run was a determined one, made in the face of terrific anti-aircraft fire, by five Zeros in line astern. One pilot on the ground was hit by cannon fire in the shoulder ... our CO Peter Turnbull caught on the ground, manned a machine gun on the runway and blazed away. [Kerville, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 161] AWM 044665

Two male soldiers making repairs to a large gun.

A Japanese 37-millimetre anti-tank gun captured at Milne Bay. It was collapsible and easily taken to pieces for carrying. On 29 August 1942, a similar gun was strafed and put out of action by Squadron Leader 'Bluey' Truscott, No. 76 Squadron RAAF. The gun was later presented to him. AWM 026537

A studio portrait of a male soldier.

Corporal John French VC, 2/9th Battalion, AIF. French was killed on 4 September 1942 during the action for which he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. In part his citation for the medal reads: By his cool courage and disregard of his own personal safety, this noncommissioned officer saved the members of his section from heavy casualties ... [French citation, quoted in Lionel Wigmore and Bruce Harding, They Dared Mightily, Canberra, 1963, p. 239] AWM 100643

A male soldier attending to a grave marked by a cross and name.

The grave of Corporal John French VC, 2/9th Battalion, in the Milne Bay War Cemetery, June 1943. French's remains, along with all those who had died in the Battle of Milne Bay and were buried in this cemetery were later removed to the Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby. AWM 053231

Male soldiers on a small boat with diving gear and a capsized ship behind them.

Divers prepare to descend into the interior of the merchant ship Anshun, which was sunk by gun fire from the Japanese cruiser Tatta at Milne Bay on the night of 6–7 September 1942. The Anshun was later refloated, repaired and renamed the Culcairn. The 2/12th Battalion had travelled to Milne Bay on the Anshun and had little regard for the ship: The Anshun was the most horrible ship I ever travelled on. It was full of cockroaches and dirty ... [it] was sunk by the Japanese ... I remember saying it was the only good thing the Japs did! [Private Jack Hayward, 2/12th Battalion, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 57] AWM 059465

A large white ship on the water.

The Australian Hospital Ship Manunda. The Manunda entered Milne Bay on the night of 6–7 September to embark casualties. The ship was illuminated by Japanese warships but not fired on. AWM 002395

A naval ship moving on the water.

The destroyer HMAS Arunta. The Arunta, and other Australian warships, escorted supply ships to Milne Bay during August and September 1942. AWM 300210

Male soldiers and military vehicles on a wharf with ships docked alongside.

The wharf, Milne Bay, September 1942. In the last days before the Japanese landing at Milne Bay, hundreds of tons of stores and equipment were landed in an attempt to build up sufficient stock. AWM 026697

A fighting patrol of the 2/10th Battalion, about to set out to search for Japanese soldiers still believed to be in the area after the battle, Milne Bay, September 1942. AWM 026689

Male soldiers in a gun pit with a large gun pointed skywards.

An anti-aircraft Bofors gun at Gurney Strip, Milne Bay, September 1942. In the background a Kittyhawk fighter-bomber can be seen about to land. Flight Sergeant Bob Aldridge, No. 100 Squadron RAAF, described the operation of the anti-aircraft guns at night at Milne Bay: ... then from the Ack-Ack battery, there is a burst of orange flame, the howl of a thousand dervishes as that shell claws the air and speeds many thousands of feet up into the calm night sky. [Aldridge, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 235] AWM 026629

A small plane among palm trees.

RAAF Kittyhawk fighter-bombers in dispersal bays at Gurney Airstrip, Milne Bay, September 1942. At Milne Bay, some of the Kittyhawks had names painted on them, for example, Mandrake, U-Bute, Peter's Revenge (after the death of Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull), and the more reflective: I fear no one m-m-m-much! AWM 026657

Male pilots sitting down next to each other.

Bomber and fighter pilots of the RAAF take it easy at Milne Bay, September 1942. AWM 026654

A motorcycle with a trailor partially buried in the ground.

Japanese motorised tricycle found wrecked in the Japanese main base at Milne Bay, September 1942. AWM 026625

Male soldiers pushing a heavy military vehicle bogged in mud with more male soldiers looking on.

Truck bogged in the mud at Milne Bay, October 1942. A RAAF report had this to say about driving the roads of Milne Bay: Heaven help the poor unfortunate driver who slipped over the edge into the deep so-called drains on either side. Four wheel drive vehicles were the only transport that stood up to the conditions. Other cars and trucks just ground their gears to shreds. [9 Operational Group report, quoted in David Wilson, The Decisive Factor, Melbourne, 1991, p. 106] AWM 026681

Three male soldiers running along in the mud with their weapons at the ready.

An Australian infantry patrol (61st Battalion) at Milne Bay, October 1942. This photograph, although taken after the battle, gives some indication of the conditions that the infantry had to endure. AWM 013335

 

Two male soldiers marching through thick scrub with their rifles in hand.

Troops on patrol at Milne Bay, October 1942. This was typical of the jungle environment in which the Battle of Milne Bay was fought between 25 August and 7 September 1942. AWM 013317

A medical team prepare to treat a patient in a

An RAAF medical receiving station at Port Moresby to which casualties from Milne Bay were brought. AWM OG0062

Plumes of dirt surrounding a plane as it takes off from a dirt runway.

A Beaufort torpedo bomber of No. 100 Squadron sends up a spray of mud as it takes off from Gurney Airstrip, October 1942. No. 100 Squadron arrived at Gurney on 6 September 1942 and began offensive operations from there on 7 September. AWM OG0061M

Men on horseback riding amongst sheep in a yard.

During the period October 1942 until the end of the war, Milne Bay functioned as a major Allied base and staging area for the campaign in the south-west Pacific. Elaborate facilities, which included a sheep station, were built up there. AWM 014830

 

Male soldiers on a boat with a Japanese flag.

Australian soldiers with a Japanese flag captured at Milne Bay, October 1942. AWM 013324

Two male soldiers holding up a flag with an anchor surrounded by a pattern.

A Japanese emblem captured at Milne Bay, October 1942. AWM 013331

A male soldier holding his vest jacket open.

A bullet-proof vest captured from the Japanese at Milne Bay. It had six sheets of bullet-proof steel covering the front. Its wearer had been hit by a bullet that had dented the plate and the slug had fallen into the bottom of the lining. AWM 026543

A row of of indigenous people with medals around their necks.

Six local people at Milne Bay who were decorated for their service to the Allies during the battle. From left to right: Taulebona Maiogura, who helped Leading Aircraftman Donegan, Edward Guise, John Pilacapio, Pilimomi, Ilai Dixon and Banaba. AWM 014649

A drawing of male soldiers at night with a lantern being held up.

Night patrol returning to base, by Roy Hodgkinson, crayon with charcoal, 52.7 x 68.3 cm AWM ART29707. After the Japanese evacuation of Milne Bay, many enemy soldiers were left behind. Australian patrols were sent out to track down these stragglers. Sergeant Ron Munro, No. 100 Squadron RAAF, made the following entry in his diary: A number of Japs were at large in the bush at night and used to come in and scrounge food. On one or two occasions they cut people's throats and this made us quite nervous. [Munro, quoted in Baker and Knight, Milne Bay 1942, p. 328]

A graveyard with graves marked by crosses and names.

The grave of Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull, No. 76 Squadron RAAF, at the Milne Bay War Cemetery, April 1943. Turnbull's body was initially recovered on 5 September 1942 by a patrol from the 2/12th Battalion and buried by a RAAF detail: The Airforce men brought his remains down wrapped in a canvas bag. There was no Padre present but Private Simpson was a lay minister of the Methodist Church before the war and had a Bible. He delivered a brief but dignified service as we bowed our heads in honour of a brave airman. [Corporal Viv Rammut, 2/12th Battalion, quoted in Alex Graeme-Evans, Of Storms and Rainbows, New Bay, 1991, p. 144] AWM 014651

A mass military grave covered by rocks

The monument erected by the 61st Battalion at the northern edge of No. 3 Airstrip, Milne Bay, in late 1942. This photograph was taken in February 1944, by which time the original notice boards had rotted and had been replace by copies. AWM 070385

A male soldier in a graveyard with graves marked by crosses and a plaque.

A small cemetery near Gili Gili at the head of Milne Bay where some of those who died in the fighting were buried. AWM 026691

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