OVERVIEW AND PREPARATIONS FOR THE BATTLE

The Australians dig in at Isurava

To reach Isurava, the weary young soldiers of the 39th Battalion had to leave the foothills and ascend over rugged ground to reach the small village perched on top of the first of a series of towering Owen Stanley mountain ridges which lie between Kokoda and Port Moresby. On reaching Isurava, the men of the 39th Battalion dug in to make another stand until AIF reinforcements could reach them. Their determination to hold the Japanese at Isurava was bolstered by the knowledge that only their greatly weakened battalion stood between the Japanese and Port Moresby. The fate of Australia would now hang in the balance during a series of fierce and bloody battles along the Kokoda Track, as heavily outnumbered and poorly supplied Australian soldiers tried to stem the determined Japanese drive towards Port Moresby.

 

A proud Commanding Officer addresses his exhausted troops at the official relief of the 39th Battalion on 6 September 1942 at Menari.
After heavy fighting at Oivi, Kokoda, Deniki, and Isurava, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner’s battalion has been reduced to only 180 men.

On 15 August 1942, first contact with the Japanese was made by two platoons of Captain Bidstrup's D Company which had been deployed in ambush on the main track between Deniki and Isurava. The function of Bidstrup's forward patrol was to give warning of an impending Japanese advance, and endeavour to delay that advance. After a short exchange of fire with a Japanese patrol, Bidstrup withdrew his troops to a position on the track about half an hour's march north of Isurava and re-established his ambush. The Japanese did not follow up this initial contact on that day.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner takes command of the 39th Battalion

On 16 August Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner arrived at Isurava to take command of the 39th Battalion. The new Commanding Officer was a fine soldier who had served in Libya, Greece and Crete. Ralph Honner was a natural leader who inspired confidence in his troops. He was exactly what the weary Australian militia troops needed as they prepared to face the Japanese onslaught. Honner's orders were simple, and completely out of touch with the reality of his situation: he was to assume command of Maroubra Force and hold the Japanese on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range until relieved by fresh AIF troops of 21st Brigade, 7th Division.

On his arrival at Isurava, Honner saw that the village provided a number of natural impediments to advancing enemy troops such as thick jungle to the north and south, and a steep and heavily timbered slope to the east. However, there was open ground in the form of a village garden area to the north between the thick jungle and the Australian defensive perimeter. To the west was an area of flat grass-covered open ground, and beyond this open area the ground began to rise fairly sharply and was covered with scrub rather than dense jungle. These two areas of open ground would provide the Japanese with space to mass troops for attacks on the Australian defenders.

Honner finds his troops exhausted, starving and in poor physical condition

The problem for the Australian commander lay in the small number and exhausted physical condition of his troops who would soon have to face several battalions of elite and fiercely determined Japanese troops in a vital but very unequal battle. The appearance of the 39th Battalion troops shocked anyone who had not endured their hardships. The young militia troops were painfully thin. Their faces were gaunt and unshaven. Their eyes were sunken and hollow, and showed the ravages of exhaustion, starvation, malaria and dysentery. Their clothes had become filthy rags, and their boots were rotting and showing raw flesh through gaping holes. They had had no opportunities to wash their clothes or themselves since they left Port Moresby forty days earlier. They were existing on a strictly rationed and monotonous diet that mainly consisted of tinned bully beef and biscuits.

These young militia recruits had been sent to face the Japanese without adequate training, equipment or supplies. They had been repeatedly let down by senior commanders in Australia and Port Moresby. They must have known that these same senior commanders were enjoying all of the comforts of civilised living while they were enduring nightmarish hardships and facing death at the hands of the Japanese. Despite all of this, Honner found that their morale was still high. They might not be able to stop the Japanese tidal wave when it broke over them, but their commander was confident that his troops would stand firm to the end.

Lieutenant Colonel Honner has poignantly evoked in a brief description the condition in which he found his young troops of the 39th Battalion:

"Physically, the pathetically young warriors of the 39th were in poor shape. Worn out by strenuous fighting and exhausting movement, and weakened by lack of food and sleep and shelter, many of them had literally come to a standstill. Practically every day torrential rains fell all through the afternoon and night, cascading into their cheerless weapon pits and soaking the clothes they wore - the only ones they had. In these they shivered through the long chill vigil of the lonely nights when they were required to stand awake and alert, but still silent."

Honner deployed his five companies at Isurava in a defensive perimeter as follows: E Company, which was freshest, occupied the left forward position facing the village garden and the track leading to Deniki, and the Japanese; C Company occupied the right forward position facing the Deniki track, but with a steep slope on the east protecting its right flank; B Company occupied the left flank facing the flat open area to the west and the scrub-covered higher ground beyond; A Company occupied the right flank; and D Company occupied the rear position where the jungle was most dense and impenetrable.

In deploying his companies, Honner demonstrated the character that would win him the deep respect of the men of the 39th Battalion. He regarded Major Cameron's criticism of the fighting ability of B Company as completely unjustified. He knew that the young militia troops of B Company had been heavily outnumbered and inexperienced during the initial heavy fighting at Oivi and Kokoda. To restore their morale, and demonstrate his confidence in them, Honner had placed the troops of B Company facing the open ground to the west of the village. It was the post of honour. The Japanese were likely to mass troops behind the tree border and then launch their main attacks across the open ground. Honner replaced Captain Bidstrup's D Company ambush on the track north of Isurava with a 24 hour forward platoon-strength patrol drawn from the fittest men from each company.

Prior to his arrival at Isurava, Honner had held the fresh but poorly trained militia troops of the 53rd Australian Infantry Battalion at Alola, which was the next village down the track towards Port Moresby. The 53rd Battalion would not be brought forward to support the battle-weary 39th Battalion at Isurava. The troops of the 53rd would be deployed to protect the right flank of the 39th Battalion by patrolling a secondary, eastern track which ran roughly parallel to the Kokoda Track from Deniki, through the small villages of Fila, Kaile, Missima, and Abuari to Alola. That eastern track by-passed Isurava, and could permit the Japanese to outflank the defenders of Isurava and reach Alola. If the Japanese achieved this, they would be able to cut off supplies and reinforcements for the Australians at Isurava. To guard against this, the 53rd Battalion would maintain a standing patrol at Kaile and radio communication between Missima and Alola. 

The response by MacArthur and Blamey to the Japanese threat

It was only after the capture of Kokoda by the Japanese on 29 July that Generals MacArthur and Blamey appear to have realised that their culpable neglect of Australia's northern defences had exposed Australia to great danger and both of them to risk of dismissal. The two senior commanders responded to the danger by rushing troops of the AIF 7th Division to New Guinea.

While the 39th Battalion was engaged in its desperate and very uneven struggle at Isurava to block the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby, relief was on the way to them in the form of veteran AIF troops of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions of the 21st Brigade. These AIF troops were under the command of a distinguished soldier, Brigadier Arnold Potts, DSO, MC. Brigadier Potts had been ordered by Blamey to retake Kokoda and drive the Japanese back to the Kumusi River. As a result of faulty intelligence gathering by MacArthur's headquarters, Potts had been led to believe that his troops would face 4,000 Japanese combat troops instead of the actual number of 10,000. Potts had also been assured that adequate supplies would be available for his troops when they reached the dropping-ground established by Lieutenant Kienzle high in the mountains at Myola. The order and the assurance of adequate supplies demonstrated how far MacArthur and Blamey were out of touch with the reality of the situation in New Guinea.

The 21st Brigade embarks for Port Moresby

With very short warning, troops of the 21st Brigade had boarded ships for Port Moresby on 6 August 1942. Brigadier Potts arrived in Port Moresby by air on 8 August. On 11 August, Major General Morris was replaced by Lieutenant General S. F. Rowell who had arrived to command all Australian forces in New Guinea. Rowell was accompanied by Major General A.S. "Tubby" Allen, commander of the 7th Division. Both were soldiers with distinguished records in war. Major General Morris remained in Port Moresby in an administrative capacity. The haste with which the 21st Brigade was rushed to Port Moresby would cause the troops to be inadequately supplied and equipped when they finally confronted the Japanese on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range. They had been fighting in the deserts of the Middle East before being recalled to Australia, and Blamey sent them to the jungles of New Guinea without adequate jungle training and wearing khaki uniforms instead of green.

It was a rugged seven day trek from Port Moresby to Isurava, and the AIF troops could only negotiate the Kokoda Track in single file. Major General Morris had assured Brigadier Potts that adequate supplies and equipment would be waiting for his troops on the track and when they reached the dropping-ground at Myola. However, Morris and his staff became disconcertingly vague when Potts pressed them for details of the locations and quantities of supplies that were claimed to have been sent forward to await the 21st Brigade troops at villages on the Kokoda Track. Despite the assurances from Morris, Potts insisted that his troops carry sufficient rations for the trek to Myola and extra bandoliers of ammunition when they moved into the mountains on 16 August. The heavily laden AIF troops found the journey hard going. Even tough fighting against the Vichy French in Syria had not prepared them for the hardships of the Owen Stanleys, including the mud porridge track which dragged relentlessly at their boots.

Brigadier Potts finds inadequate supplies and equipment waiting for his troops at Myola

At the head of his two battalions, Brigadier Potts became increasingly apprehensive as he reached each village between Port Moresby and Myola. Very little preparation had been made for the movement of a large body of troops through the mountains. When Potts reached Myola, he was appalled to find that sufficient food, equipment and ammunition to maintain his campaign to drive the Japanese out of the Owen Stanleys and recapture Kokoda had not been moved forward to the dropping-ground as Major General Morris promised. Potts found rations for only five days instead of twenty-five days, and although the nights were very cold at 1,828 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level, only 80 blankets had been provided for over 1,000 men in his two battalions. Morris had not been building up supplies at Myola during the days preceding or following the departure of Brigadier Potts' two battalions from Port Moresby.

To make matters worse, on 17 August, all of the transport aircraft allocated for support of Potts' campaign against the Japanese were sitting fully loaded on the airstrip at Port Moresby when Japanese bombers struck. All of the transport aircraft were destroyed or damaged in the raid. Brigadier Potts would soon discover that native carriers could not keep his troops supplied. Cargo dropped from transport aircraft was often destroyed on impact with the ground or lost in the jungle, and the number of transport aircraft in New Guinea was totally inadequate to supply his two battalions while they were fighting the Japanese in the rugged mountains of the Owen Stanley Range.

Without adequate supplies for the troops, the Australian campaign in the Owen Stanleys was in danger of collapsing before it had even started. Instead of being able to take the offensive against the Japanese invaders at Isurava with both AIF battalions and the militia troops of the 53rd Battalion, Brigadier Potts would be forced to assume a defensive posture. His campaign to oust the Japanese from Australian territory had been compromised by poor judgment, inadequate intelligence gathering, and incompetent planning by Australia's senior military commanders before he had even come to grips with the Japanese.

In the bloody fighting that followed on the Kokoda Track, only fine leadership by Australian field commanders in New Guinea of the calibre of Brigadier Potts and the raw courage and determination of their troops in the face of overwhelming odds would save Australia and compensate for the inadequate leadership of senior military commanders in Australia. When the supply debacle on the Kokoda Track and the overwhelming strength of the Japanese invaders eventually forced Brigadier Potts to undertake a series of fighting withdrawals back along the track towards Port Moresby, he would become the first of a number of highly competent Australian commanders in New Guinea to be sacrificed as scapegoats by MacArthur and Blamey when the judgment of these two senior commanders was called into question by their political masters.

Brigadier Potts departs for Isurava, leaving his troops at Myola

Brigadier Potts knew that the 39th Battalion was facing a desperate situation at Isurava. He requested that more supplies be sent as quickly as possible from Port Moresby, and then set out for Isurava, leaving his two battalions to wait at Myola for their supplies. Potts was not only a fine soldier, but also a commander who led from the front and he was highly respected by his men. He showed himself to his men on the Kokoda Track. He was concerned for their welfare, and shared their hardships and dangers. Potts was the complete antithesis of aloof generals like Douglas MacArthur who remained in the caverns beneath his island fortress of Corregidor in the Philippines until he was able to abandon his beleaguered and starving troops on the Bataan Peninsula and slip away to Australia at night by fast torpedo patrol boat.

In response to Brigadier Potts' urgent request for supplies, an aircraft arrived from Port Moresby on the following day and dropped some supplies at Myola. It would take several days before sufficient supplies and equipment could be accumulated for two battalions at this rate of delivery, and it was decided to send each company off to Isurava as soon as sufficient food and equipment had arrived for that company. The first fully supplied company left Myola at dawn on 25 August. Owing to the supply debacle, the departure of C Company for Isurava was at least three days behind schedule and that delay could have been fatal for the 39th Battalion. B, D and A Companies would follow as soon as they had adequate supplies. Fortunately for the 39th, Major General Horii was also using that time to concentrate his troops in front of Isurava.

On 25 August, the Australians at Isurava received the best news that they had heard for many weeks. Troops of the AIF 2/16th Battalion were coming to relieve them and were then only one day's march away.

Major General Horii prepares to attack the Australians at Isurava

The commander of Japan's elite South Seas Detachment, Major General Tomitaro Horii had spent the time between 14 and 25 August 1942 concentrating his troops in the mountains for the attack on Isurava. Horii was also a commander who led his men from the front. He was also a colourful character who rode his white horse even on the Kokoda Track. Fortunately for the men of the 39th Battalion, Horii was unaware that a garrison of about 350 exhausted and poorly equipped Australians at Isurava was obstructing the Japanese drive along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby.

The Japanese had landed 13,500 troops at Gona, and 10,000 of these were seasoned combat troops. By the evening of 25 August, Horii had assembled about 6,000 Japanese troops between Kokoda and Isurava in preparation for the drive towards Port Moresby, but first he would need to brush aside the small Australian force blocking his advance at Isurava. The Japanese general had brought up five battalions of his battle-hardened and jungle-trained South Seas Detachment to spearhead his attack on the Australians at Isurava. These tough combat troops were supported by specialist units, including mountain artillery and engineers.

Horii's attack on Isurava would begin on the morning of 26 August. He planned to unleash the bulk of his combat troops in repeated frontal assaults on the Australian positions at Isurava. While the Australians were fully occupied in repelling these assaults, a battalion of Japanese troops would be moving along the roughly parallel eastern track between Deniki and Alola. Their purpose was to outflank the Australians at Isurava by occupying Alola. Having cut off the Australians from supplies and reinforcements, Horii would then be able to annihilate the defenders of Isurava.

Horii's attack on Isurava was one prong of a two pronged Japanese attack on Port Moresby. The second prong was aimed at Milne Bay on the eastern point of Papua where the Australians and Americans were building a forward airbase. The Milne Bay landing was timed to coincide with Major General Horii's attack on Isurava, and just before midnight on 25 August a Japanese invasion force was preparing to land at Milne Bay.

 

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