The war in Papua: the strategic context

A strategy is a long-term plan designed to achieve a certain goal...

3 October 1942. Papua. US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area; Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander Allied Land Forces, and Major General G. S. Allen, Commander 7th Division AIF

3 October 1942. Papua. Pictured, left to right: US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area; Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander Allied Land Forces, and Major General G. S. Allen, Commander 7th Division AIF, at Owers' Corner during General MacArthur’s first visit to New Guinea. This photograph became the basis of a portrait of MacArthur and Allen painted by Australian artist Alan Moore in 1972. Blamey was not included. [AWM 150818]

The military strategy of Japan from December 1941 to mid-1942 was an aggressive one: To advance to occupy locations of strategic importance, either resource rich areas, or places that would allow them to better defend their gains. The Allied strategy in the same period was defensive, simply to prevent the Japanese achieving their strategic goals.

As the Kokoda fighting began in July 1942 the strategy of both sides was in transition. The Japanese felt that they had overextended themselves in their advance and it was time to halt and defend their gains. The Allies were thinking the opposite. Having massed troops, ships, aircraft and supplies in Australia and New Zealand, they decided to launch a counterattack to retake some of the islands now occupied by the Japanese.

The Japanese had attacked to obtain the rubber of Malaya, the oil of Borneo and the quinine of Java, but there was no particular resource in Papua that they desired. Rather Papua was one of those places which would form a useful link in the chain of defences of the newly conquered area. Aware the Allies had built up their strength in Australia and assuming this would be directed northwards towards the major Japanese naval base of Rabaul, the Japanese required a screen of air bases forward of Rabaul to protect it. The Allies wanted these same air bases in Papua to support their attack on Rabaul. Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Kokoda and Buna were the airfields or potential airfield sites in question. These four locations were of continuing strategic interest for both sides and so became the focus of most of the land, sea and air fighting in the Papuan campaign.

Teaching and learning activities for the classroom

The war in Papua, the strategic context

For the teacher:

  • The students will need an atlas, coloured pencils, the downloadable map and instructions.

For the student:

  • Using an atlas first mark on the map all of these places.

New Britain, New Guinea, Australia, Rabaul, Milne Bay, Buna, Kokoda, Port Moresby, Cairns, Coral Sea, Owen Stanley Range, Kokoda track and Buna track - the Kokoda track runs from Kokoda to Port Moresby and the Buna track runs from Kokoda to Buna.

Now draw the following on the map using one colour for the Japanese and another for the Allies. Near each arrow write what it represents. For example for 1. below write 'Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942'.

Japanese

  1. Mark an X in the Coral Sea at the edge of the map directly east of Milne Bay. This is where the first Japanese attempt to get to Port Moresby by sea was defeated in May 1942.
  2. Draw an arrow from Rabaul to Buna. This marks the route taken by the Japanese fleet when they invaded Papua in July 1942.
  3. Draw an arrow from Buna through Kokoda to two thirds of the way between Kokoda and Port Moresby. This shows the Japanese advance from July to September 1942.
  4. Draw an arrow from Rabaul to Milne Bay. This represents the failed Japanese attack on Milne Bay in August/September 1942.
  5. Draw a circle around Buna. This indicates where the Japanese army was finally destroyed by the Allies in January 1943.

Allies

  1. The Australian and American bombers in Queensland supported their troops in New Guinea by bombing the Japanese base at Buna. Show this by drawing an arrow from Cairns to Buna.
  2. Draw a circle around Port Moresby. This was the main Allied base in New Guinea and the place the Japanese wanted to capture.
  3. Draw an arrow from Port Moresby, along the Kokoda track and the Buna track to Buna. This shows the Australian advance across the Owen Stanley range from September to November 1942.
  4. Draw an arrow along the coast from Milne Bay to Buna. This shows the American advance on the Japanese Buna base in October/November 1942.

Last updated: 1 August 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The war in Papua: the strategic context, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/kokoda-track-1942-1943/kokoda-track/war-papua-strategic-context
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