The Kokoda campaign is obviously Australia’s most important World War Two (WWII) battle. Australia resisted Japanese troops from July to November 1942. Several factors were responsible for Australia’s triumph. This paper analyses the factors responsible for Australia’s victory and focuses on Japan’s disadvantages and Australia’s advantages.
One of the Japanese’s major problems was logistics. Japan’s supply chain became weaker as the battle advanced. In spite of their formidable artillery, the Japanese Navy soon found it difficult to supply materials to its troops. The Japanese had imported some workers and transporters from Rabaul and Formosan, but this number proved insufficient and disorganised. Japanese positions were also regularly assaulted by Allied air fighters.
The Allied air fighters served as an advantage to Australian troops. Their major objective was to support the ground troops by disrupting and destroying Japan’s supply chain. A major target during this mission was the Wairopi Bridge across the Kumasi River. Japanese soldiers worked continuously to repair the bridge despite the damages caused by machine guns, explosives, and cannons. Eighty raids were made on the bridge between September 20 and October 20 and the bridge was finally destroyed on October 18, 1942.1
The Australian troops, who at this time were retreating from impending Japanese assaults, gained an advantage as they approached Moresby. Australian troops did not experience any air raids and enjoyed air supplies.2 Australia also had a better-organised logistics process, particularly due to Lt. Bert Kienzle’s strategies.3 Kienzle was in charge of the Papuan workers responsible for building a road linking Iloilo and Kokoda. Keller later explained that such a task “would have been a colossal engineering job” for his workforce of 600.4 Kienzle agreed to lead Templeton and some carriers to Kokoda. The Papuans transported supplies and weapons to troops and transported back injured soldiers on makeshift stretchers.
The meticulous attention the Papuans paid to injured soldiers was described in a 7th Division medical journal.
Along the track, day after day, plodded the walking sick and wounded, the stretcher cases being carried by native carriers. With makeshift stretchers… as many as eight or ten native bearers would carry day after day. To watch them descend steep slippery spurs into a mountain stream, along the bed and up the steep ascent, was an object lesson in stretcher bearing. They carried stretchers over seemingly impassable barriers, with the patient reasonably comfortable. The care which they show to the patient is magnificent.5
In spite of the problems, after months of battling against the environment, the Australians, and hunger, the Japanese settled at Ioribaiwa in September. However, this was the closest they will get to their mission. Even though the Japanese were in sight of Port Moresby, they experienced a heavy attack from Fourteenth Field Regiment at Owers’ Corner.6
Japan was also at a disadvantage point in another location as their submarine entry into Milne Bay, which would have complemented the overland attack on Moresby, and the Guadalcanal attack was all unsuccessful. Also, Japan’s station at Buna was undergoing an attack from Allied air fighters. This was a major concern and prompted Japan’s withdrawal of its 41st Infantry Regiment to the Kokoda region. On September 14, 1942, Rabaul commanded Horii to prioritise the creation of a brigade at Buna. Horii created this brigade continuously led them towards Ioribawa, even though he was ordered to retreat7. Horii would eventually cancel the attack, against his will, on September 14 1942. On September 16, the 41st Infantry Regiment started moving back to Kokoda as the 144th Infantry Regiment shielded the withdrawal.8
Brigadier Eather led Australia’s troops towards Papua. The troop had practically no space to adapt to the environment before going into battle. The troop arrived in Moresby on September 9, 1942, after travelling by sea for eight days, while the other troops arrived in batches the following day. Each brigade was made of approximately 600 men. The troops were assigned green combat uniforms before they headed to the battlefield. With a better and more equipped and organised force, Eather gave the order for his troops to halt the Japanese and recover control of the road leading to Kokoda.9
Strategically positioned across Imita Ridge, each Australian regiment forcefully guarded the area between the Ioribaiwa and the ridge, battling with the Japanese forces that stood guard. On September 28 and 29, the Australian troops occupied Iorinbawa in batches. Australian troops pushed the Japanese forces to Nauro. Subsequently, the form of the battle was very comparable to Australia’s earlier withdrawal however the characters were the other way.
In this case, it was fewer Japanese soldiers engaging in desperate rear-guard battles narrowly followed by the Australian troops. Australian troops got to the old Brigade Hill waterfront and Sgt Bede Tongs remembers the “devastating sight” of the dead bodies of Australian soldiers. Damaged and rusty arms and equipment were littered around.10 An Australian soldier explains that dead bodies hung on trees other sat in trenches still holding their weapons.11
The retreat of the Japanese soldiers was unpleasant and disheartening. Okada suggests that the retreat command had dampened the troops’ spirits, which had merely been sustained by their ego. Soldiers were losing their nerves, as well as their feeding and medication, as they were closely trailed by Australians and repeatedly attacked by Allied air raids. Each day, Okada explained, the echoing of the Australians’ guns trailing them drew nearer, and the air raids from the Allied forces increased. The Japanese mounted their fading strength and increased their fleeing speed.12
In order to lighten their weights, Japanese soldiers abandoned all items that were not essential. Hunting groups could find nothing for the troops to feed. Australian troops even noticed a few exceptional instances of cannibalism.13 Consequently, Japanese fatalities increased speedily and the few survivors mostly were susceptible to diseases such as malaria, beriberi, tropical sores, and dysentery. It appears that most of the sick were abandoned to cater for themselves.
At Eora and Templeton, the Japanese rear-guard proved that it was still deadly. Most of the South Seas troops arrived at Kokoda on October 4, 1942. Major Horrie was in charge of the battalion responsible for defending the hilly paths. The troops had to navigate through the mountainous terrains characterised by low temperatures and low visibility. Only exploratory assaults could be achieved prior to mid-morning.
Crawling up the steep slopes in the midst of different attacks, the Japanese troops were able to repulse attacks due to the provincial advantage they had. However, the Australians, with immense persistence, gradually gained the advantage and the ridge was eventually gained on October 16 1942. Australia recorded over fifty casualties during the Templeton assault. However, poor health conditions had the most negative effect on Australian soldiers as 730 men and officers were removed before the end of the battle.14
Persistent resistance from the Japanese, rough topography, and a severe climate, were factors contributing to weakening Australia’s troops. Eather explains in his journal that the different battalions were exhausted at some point and relief was necessary.15 General Allen, who was already in charge of Maroubra troops, ordered the relief. These soldiers, who had experienced fighting in other locations, started their first battle against the Japanese. Australian commanders’ effective communication and quick reaction contributed greatly to Australia’s success. Gen Allen ordered the relief of Eather’s Sixteenth Brigade soldiers from the Sixth Division.
The Sixteenth Brigade, which comprised of soldiers that had fought in Crete, Greece, and the Middle East, started moving up the mountains in early October and took charge of the forward regions on October 20 1942. The two front regiments of the 2/2nd Battalion launched a successful attack on the Japanese rear-guard base. 23 soldiers from the 2/2nd were killed on the first day. The Australian troops were unaware of the Japanese’s positions until the Japanese troops started firing machine guns. The Australian troops strategically used grenades to suppress the Japanese gun pits.16
After gaining control of the track, the troops advanced to Eora Creek and battled the strongly positioned Japanese troops. The battle lasted for six days until October 28 1942, when the 2/3rd Battalion manipulated past Japanese defence and launched a fierce ambush behind the Japanese. Almost seventy Japanese soldiers had been killed after the battle. Although the Australian troops won the battle, the Sixteenth Brigade had lost almost 300 soldiers in less than ten days.17
Although this was one of the biggest and most complex battles of the Australians during the Kokoda raid, the commanding officer, General Allen, was succeeded at the end of the battle. Vasey concisely ordered his troops to occupy Kokoda by November 2 1942 because he wanted to totally destroy the enemy. The twenty-fifth brigade had a short break at Alola and continued advancing towards Kokoda. After they passed Eora Creek, Horie selected sixteen soldiers to meet the rest of the South Seas Force. General Vasey planted Australia’s flag at Kokoda on 3rd November.
The last battles of the campaign took place just outside Kokoda, round Gorari and Oivi. On their way from Kokoda, Australian troops came across a formidable Japanese base in Oivi. Australian troops launched futile anterior assaults for the next two days because the Japanese defence was well fortified. In reaction to this, the 25th Brigade was deployed along a different path to envelop the Japanese defence. On November 9 1942, the 31st and 25th Divisions had surrounded the Japanese position obstructing the north-south track.
Also, the 33rd and 1st Divisions, after bypassing the Japanese defence through the bush, were on both sides of the main path at Gorari but positioned between two Japanese bases. Understanding they were trapped in a steadily closing snare, the Japanese tried frantically to push the 33rd and 1st Divisions from their bases. The Australian forces remained firm throughout the fighting that spanned a whole day and night. The 25th and 31st Divisions positioned at the south of the Japanese also endured tough fighting as they pressed the Japanese from both ends.
The peak of the fight was November 11 1942. Australia’s two divisions on the South crushed the Japanese forces and then repositioned to assist the other division located at Gori. The 1st and 31st divisions jointly assaulted the Japanese base positioned at the east of the 1st. The battle was brutal, but finally, the Australians surrounded and destroyed the Japanese base. Meanwhile, the Japanese troops left their base at Oivi. The last battle claimed the lives of more than 600 Japanese soldiers. The rest of the Australian troops reached Kumusi River on November 13th. By 17th November, all Australian soldiers that partook in the battle were on the other side of the river. This marked the end of The Kokoda battle.18
In the course of the battle, which lasted four months, over 600 Australians died and 1,600 were injured. Although the casualties recorded were high, Australia defeated Japan in the Kokoda campaign. Even though both sides fought intensely, this historical review indicates some factors that may have put Australian troops on the advantage point. One of the major factors influencing Australian troops’ victory was the support they had from the Allied airstrikes.
The continuous disruption of Japanese bases and supply chains by the airstrikes weakened the Japanese fortification and put Australia at an advantage point. The lack of supplies had a consequent effect on Japanese soldiers’ health. Their exposure to different diseases also weakened them physically and made them more vulnerable to attacks from Australian troops. Sickness could weaken the Japanese troops’ physical strength. However, when the troops were ordered to retreat, their fighting spirit was weakened and this made them more vulnerable to the Australian and Allied assaults.
The Australians took advantage of the Japanese’s weaknesses by effectively strategizing and quickly reacting to every opportunity for an assault. All Australian commanding officers appeared to have one thing in common – a proactive nature. This leadership trait was easily transmitted to the Australian soldiers as they became more prone to assault than defence. The Australians also had a more organised logistics system and this made their supply chains and transportation smooth and efficient. Also, they were given very direct, specific, and concise missions and this enabled them to have a clear understanding of their various contributory roles. By effectively merging their strength with the Japanese weaknesses, the Australian battalions succeeded in their pursuit to capture Kokoda.
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
AWM MSS0732, Seizo Okada Papers, Australian War Memorial. Web.
AWM52, 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and CMF (Citizen Military Forces) unit war diaries, 1939–45 War. Web.
AWM54, Written records, 1939–45 War. Web.
Articles, Books, and Pamphlets
Bullard, S, Army operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papuan campaigns, 1942–43, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2007.
Gillison, S, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1962.
Gower, S, Guns of the regiment, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1981.
James, B, a Field guide to the Kokoda Track, Kokoda Press, Lane Cove, 2006.
Johnston, M, The proud 6th: An illustrated history of the 6th Australian Division 1939–45, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2008.
Kokoda Front Line, video recording, Damien Parer production, Australia, 1942.
McCarthy, D, South-West Pacific Area first year: Kokoda to Wau, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1959.
Powell, A, The third force: ANGAU’s New Guinea war, 1942–46, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2003.
- S Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962, p. 34.
- Kokoda Front Line, video recording, Damien Parer production, Australia, 1942.
- A Powell, The third force: ANGAU’s New Guinea war, 1942–46, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 54.
- AWM54, Written records, 1939–45 War. Web.
- AWM54, Written records, 1939–45 War. Web.
- S Gower, Guns of the regiment, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1981, p. 43.
- B James, a Field guide to the Kokoda Track, Lane Cove: Kokoda Press, 2006, p. 18.
- S Bullard, Army operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papuan campaigns, 1942–43, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2007, p. 185.
- AWM52, 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and CMF (Citizen Military Forces) unit war diaries, 1939–45 War. Web.
- P Ham, Kokoda, Pymble: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 329.
- W Crooks, The footsoldiers: the story of the 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion, A.I.F. in the war of 1939–45, Brookvale: Printcraft Press for the 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion, A.I.F. Association, 1971, p. 192.
- AWM MSS0732, Seizo Okada Papers, Australian War Memorial. Web.
- AWM, AWM52, item 8/2/25.
- D McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area first year: Kokoda to Wau, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959, pp. 274–275.
- 25th Brigade war diary, 19 October 1942, September–October 1942, AWM, AWM52, item 8/2/25.
- AWM52, 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and CMF (Citizen Military Forces) unit war diaries, 1939–45 War. Web.
- M Johnston, The proud 6th: An illustrated history of the 6th Australian Division 1939–45, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 141.
- McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area first year, Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 334.