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HMAS Sydney Milne Bay

The first battle that stopped the Japanese in WW2

Often overshadowed by the campaign on the Kokoda track, the Battle of Milne Bay (Operation RE) was a battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II. Japanese marines attacked the Australian base at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea on August 25, 1942, and fighting continued until the Japanese retreated on 5 September 1942, however armed resistance ended on 7 September 1942. The battle was the first in the Pacific campaign in which Allied troops defeated Japanese land forces and, significantly, forced them to withdraw. The assault was the southern most point of the Japanese advance on land in World War II.

The Japanese hoped to secure a air and naval base to to provide air and naval support to the Japanese Kokoda Track campaign to take Port Moresby, New Guinea by capturing the newly constructed airfields at Milne Bay.

The British Field Marshal Sir William Slim, who had no part in the battle, said:

"Australian troops had, at Milne Bay, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. Some of us may forget that, of all the allies, it was the Australians who first broke the invincibility of the Japanese army."

In fact it was elite Japanese marines, known as Kaigun Rikusentai (Special Naval Landing Forces), rather than the Imperial Japanese Army who attacked the Allied forces at Milne Bay. The Japanese high command committed approximately 2400 marines from the 5th Kure Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) led by Commander Shojiro Hayashi, the 5th Sasebo SNLF, led by Lieutenant Fujikawa, 10th Naval Landing Force, 2nd Air Advance Party and (non-combat) personnel from the 16th Naval Construction Unit. The Japanese force was led initially by Commander Shojiro Hayashi.

The Allies, commanded by the Australian Major General Cyril Clowes, were defending three strategically-important airstrips. The soldiers were made up of the 18th Infantry Brigade of the Australian 7th Division, the 7th Brigade, a Militia formation, Companies A, C and a section of E Company of the 14th Brigade of the 55th Battalion, 9th Battery of 2/3rd Light Anti Aircraft Regiment, US 709th Anti Aircraft Battery and the 9th Battery of 2/5th Field Regiment. In addition, a portion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 46th (General Service) Engineers Regiment, was deployed for the purpose of airfield construction.

Although the Allied forces numbered 8,824, only about 4,500 were infantry. The Japanese enjoyed a significant advantage in the form of light tanks, which the Allies had not deployed. The Japanese also had complete control of the sea during the night, allowing reinforcement and evacuation. However, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 75 and 76 Squadrons, flying P-40 Kittyhawk aircraft together with No. 6's Hudsons from No. 1 Strip at Milne Bay, which played a critical role in the fierce fighting, were largely uncontested during the day.

From 4 August 1942, Japanese aircraft began to bomb Milne Bay in preparation for the landing.

The main Japanese invasion force left Rabaul on 24 August. The fleet comprised Light cruisers, Tenryu and Tatsuta, destroyers, Urakaze, Tanikaze and Hamakaze, transports, Nankai Maru and Kinai Maru and two Submarine chasers under the command of Rear Admiral Mitsaharu Matsuyama.

On the 25 August, Milne Bay GHQ was alerted by a RAAF Hudson bomber near Kitava Island, of the Trobriand Islands and Coastwatchers that a Japanese convoy of five escorts and four transports was approaching the Milne Bay area. HMAS Arunta and transport SS Tasman, left the Milne Bay area sailed for Port Moresby after learning of the invasion force. RAAF aircraft scrambled from No. 1 Strip and 12 RAAF P-40's and a Hudson strafed the convoy and attempted to bomb the transports, with 250lb bombs near Rabi Island. The attack had a limited effect. Only limited damage was caused to the convoy and no ships were sunk. With night approaching the RAAF returned to base.

The second convoy of invasion troops, from Buna, consisting of 350 marines of 5th Sasebo SNLF, led by Commander Tsukioka, were stranded on Goodenough Island, after resting on the island when their barges were destroyed by No. 75 Squadron RAAF P-40's. It was intended that the second convoy land at Taupota and cross the Stirling Range and attack the rear flank of the Milne Bay defenders.

Due to the attack on the main convoy, the Japanese were forced to land further from their main objective at Rabi, near the Milne Bay airbases. At 11.30pm on 25 August, the Japanese landed 1150 troops and two Type 95 Ha-Go tanks [1] , at Ahioma on the northern shore of Milne Bay, eleven kilometres east of their intended landing area.

D Company, of 61st Battalion was caught near the landing site at Ahioma, attempting to fall back to KB Mission and a small skirmish occured. The D Company requisitioned luggers Bronzewing and Elevala were disabled, however the motor launch Dadosee escaped.

By dawn of 26 August, the Japanese had reached the main position of B Company of the 61st Battalion's around KB Mission. The Japanese suffered a serious setback when their base area was heavily attacked at daylight by RAAF Kittyhawks and a Hudson aircraft, as well as US 5th Air Forces B-25s, B-26s and B-17s, killing a number of enemy troops, destroying supplies and a number of landing barges beached near the KB Mission. The destruction of the landing barges prevented their use to outflank the Australian battalions. The RAAF Kittyhawks were very close to the action, with aircraft strafing Japanese positions very shortly after taking off.

A counterattack by the 61st Battalion drove the Japanese from KB Mission, however after six hours of intense fighting, the 61st Division withdrew to the Gama River. The 61st Battalion suffered 15 killed, 14 wounded and some missing, and the 25th Battalion, 3 killed and 2 missing.

The Australian 2/10th Infantry Battalion, was ordered to the Gama River, by Major General Cyril Clowes, and went into the offensive, however came upon the Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks and valiantly tried to disable them with Sticky bombs, which failed to stick due to the humid conditions of the tropics. The Japanese troops and the supporting tanks, inflicted severe casualties on the 2/10th Infantry Battalion, who suffered 43 killed and 26 wounded. The 2/10th Infantry Battalion was forced to retreat to north of No. 3 Strip south of Kilarbo, on 27 August 1942. No. 3 Strip was under construction by the 46th (General Service) Engineers Regiment at the time. The 25th Battalion held the Japanese back and a two day lull followed.

On 29 August, Japanese reinforcements were landed consisting of 768 men from the 3rd Kure SNLF and 5th Yokosuka SNLF, with Commander Minoru Yano, who took over from Hayashi. The warships of the convoy shelled the allied positions at Gili Gili while offloading the reinforcements. The Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks were found by a Australian forward patrol on 30 August, near Rabi bogged in the mud abandoned.

On 31 August at 3:00am, three banzai charges were repelled at No. 3 Strip with withering machine gun and mortar fire from 25th Battalion and 61st Battalion as well as the 46th (General Service) Engineers Regiment and artillery fire from the Australian 2/5th Field Regiment.

The 2/12th Battalion launched a counter offensive at 9.00 am on 31 August and pushed the Japanese along the north coast of Milne Bay and were joined by the 2/9th Battalion on 3 September and faced significant strong resistance on 4 September. The advance of a section from the Australian 2/9th Battalion was held up by fire from three Japanese machine gun positions. Corporal John French ordered the other members of the section to take cover before he attacked and destroyed two of the machine guns with grenades. French then attacked the third position with his submachine gun. The Japanese ceased fire and the Australian section advanced to find that the machine gunners had been killed and that French had died in front of the third position. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Milne Bay.

On 5 September, the Japanese high command ordered a withdrawal. On 6 September the offensive reached the main camp of the Japanese landing force. The 2/9th Battalion had lost 30 killed and 90 wounded, the 2/12th Battalion 35 killed and 44 wounded. Three Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron RAAF and six Beauforts of No. 100 Squadron RAAF arrived at Milne Bay on 6 September 1942 to provide additional support against any further landings and provide anti-shipping missions. At night of the 6 September, Japanese light cruiser Tatsuta, part of the force assigned to evacuate the surviving troops after their defeat, bombarded the Gili Gili wharves and sunk the MV Anshun.

On the night of the 7th further Japanese warships bombarded onshore positions. Patrols by Australian troops tracked down and killed Japanese troops who attempted to trek overland to Buna.

According to official figures 311 Japanese personnel were killed with about 700 missing in action. The Japanese navy evacuated 1318 personnel. Of the 534 Australian casualties 161 were killed or missing in action. The U.S. forces lost 14 personnel killed and several wounded.

The Japanese committed war crimes at Milne Bay, namely the killing of surrendered prisoners of war and civilians. None of the 39 Australian troops captured by the Japanese survived. All were killed and some were mutilated as well. In addition at least 59 civilians were murdered. These events were documented by the Webb Royal Commission in Australia after the war.

The effect on the morale of all Allied servicemen in Asia and the Pacific was profound, but especially for other Australians fighting a rearguard action on the Kokoda Track, U.S. Marines simultaneously fighting the Battle of Guadalcanal and Slim's troops in the 14th Army who had been retreating in Burma.