Battleground New Guinea

The dense tropical jungles and heavy rainfall of New Guinea provided harsh conditions for soldiers who fought there in the Pacific War. The first Australians to arrive in New Guinea faced elite Japanese troops of the South Seas Detachment on the Kokoda Track and crack Japanese marines of the Special Naval Landing Forces at Milne Bay. These tough Japanese troops had acquired extensive combat experience fighting in China, Malaya, the Philippines, and Dutch East Indies. They were experienced jungle fighters, and the dense jungles of New Guinea provided them with ideal conditions for their kind of fighting.

The Australians on the Kokoda Track were heavily outnumbered, ill-equipped, poorly supplied, inadequately trained for jungle warfare, and fighting a fiercely determined enemy. To add to their problems, conditions on the Kokoda Track were appalling. The narrow dirt track climbed steep heavily timbered mountains, and then descended into deep valleys choked with dense rain forest. The steep gradients and the thick vegetation made movement difficult, exhausting, and at times dangerous. Razor-sharp kunai grass tore at their clothing and slashed their skin. In many parts of the island of New Guinea, including the areas where the Kokoda Campaign was fought, the average annual rainfall is about 5 metres (16 feet), and daily rainfalls of 25 centimetres (10 inches) are not uncommon. When these rains fell, dirt tracks quickly dissolved into calf-deep mud which exhausted the soldiers after they had struggled several hundred metres through it and bogged military vehicles to the axles. Sluggish streams in mountain ravines quickly became almost impassable torrents when the rains began to fall. Re-supply was a nightmare for the Australian commanders on the Kokoda Track, because every item of food, ammunition and equipment had to be man-handled along the track or dropped by air. Heat, oppressive humidity, mosquitos and leeches added to the discomfort of the rain-drenched Australian soldiers who were often without adeqate food and even a cup of tea.

As if this was not enough for the Australian diggers to face, their other deadly enemy was disease. Malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, and dysentery flourished in these conditions and added to the misery of the exhausted Australians. Wet clothes and boots were a frequent source of unpleasant skin diseases.

Australian Militia Battalions are sent to guard Australia's northern approaches

In response to ominous signs in 1941 that Japan was preparing for military aggression in the South-West Pacific region, the Australian government undertook a rapid expansion of Australia's volunteer Citizen Military Forces, also known as the militia, for the defence of the Australian mainland and overseas territories. Although liable to be called up to defend Australia, these militia troops were inadequately trained, and lacked adequate equipment and weapons.

Between March and December 1941, the Australian Government moved three militia battalions to Port Moresby to defend this vital northern gateway to Australia. The average age of these militia recruits was eighteen and a half years. Unlike the second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), which had been recruited to fight the Germans and Italians in Europe and North Africa, the military service of the militia soldiers was strictly limited to the defence of Australia and its island Territories. To many in the 2nd AIF, who could not foresee Japan's entry into World War II on the side of Germany and Italy in December 1941, the militia wore the uniforms of soldiers but without the risk of ever being involved in combat. This distinction between AIF and militia service led to the young militia recruits being branded "chocolate soldiers" or "chocos" by some AIF members. The scornful term "choco" was intended to convey a suggestion that the militia recruits would melt if exposed to the pressures of real combat. As if to underline their second class status in the eyes of many senior AIF commanders, the militia recruits were denied adequate training and equipment, and treated with a cavalier disregard for their welfare and feelings. These attitudes produced ill feeling between the AIF and the militia which Australia could simply not afford.

Although initially a volunteer citizen army, following the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, the Curtin Labor government ordered full mobilisation on 19 February 1942. Thereafter, all males aged 18-35, and all single males aged 35-45, became liable to conscription into the militia.

During the first half of 1942, the Commander of the 8th Military District, Major General Morris, had no experienced AIF troops under his command at Port Moresby. His main force was the 30th Australian Infantry Brigade, a militia formation comprising the 39th, 49th and 53rd Australian Infantry Battalions. With the exception of the 53rd Battalion, the militia were led by experienced AIF officers and NCOs, but the troops were almost all raw recruits.

The appalling treatment of these young militia recruits provides a damning indictment of Australia's Army leadership in 1941-42. None of these militia units had received proper military training before arriving at Port Moresby. The 49th Battalion reached Port Moresby in March 1941 without the most basic infantry equipment, and were immediately put to work as labourers - unloading ships, and constructing roads and buildings. The 39th and 53rd Battalions reached Port Moresby on the Aquitania in January 1942, and they could not immediately be fed and sheltered because their food supplies and camping equipment had been stowed at the bottom of the ship's hold. Many of the raw recruits of the 53rd Battalion had never handled a rifle until they were put on board the ship bound for Port Moresby. The 39th Battalion, which had been raised in Victoria in October 1941, was fortunate in that it had more experienced AIF officers than the other two militia battalions.

The important role played by Australian Militia troops in New Guinea

Despite their lack of adequate training, equipment and supplies, and despite the appalling conditions under which they fought in New Guinea, the heavily outnumbered militia soldiers of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion would play a critical and heroic role in delaying the momentum of the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby until seasoned AIF reinforcements could be brought into the battle.

Local units available to support the Australian Militia at Port Moresby

In addition to the Australian militia units, General Morris also had troops of the local Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) and the local New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR). The troops of the NGVR, all European and numbering about 450, were spread thinly across areas of the Australian Territory of New Guinea not occupied by the Japanese. The fortifications of Port Moresby in April 1942 comprised two ancient naval guns, a field artillery regiment, a heavy anti-aircraft battery, and a few mobile anti-aircraft guns.

Composition of an infantry battalion on the Kokoda Track in 1942

It is appropriate to mention at this point the composition of an infantry battalion because references will be made from time to time to the components of a battalion when dealing with land battles on the island of New Guinea.

In 1942, an Australian Imperial Force (AIF) infantry battalion was composed of several companies, usually four rifle companies and a headquarters company, and designated respectively: A, B, C, D and HQ. Militia battalians often included a fifth machine-gun company designated E. Each rifle company was composed of three platoons which were identified by numbers starting from one. On the Kokoda Track, the number of troops in each of the components of an infantry battalion could vary significantly, and it is convenient to think in terms of a range of 450-550 soldiers when battalions are mentioned, about 100-110 for a rifle company, and about 30-35 for a rifle platoon.

The Australian Government recalls AIF Divisions to defend Australia

The surrender to the Japanese of Britain's so-called "impregnable fortress" of Singapore, and the seemingly inexorable advance of Japanese military forces across the South-West Pacific, caused the Australian Government in February 1942 to recall Australia’s AIF 6th and 7th Divisions from the Middle East. When Singapore fell, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it very clear to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin that Britain's highest priority was the defence of India, "The Jewel in the (British) Crown", and that no British soldiers would be provided for the defence of Australia against a Japanese invasion. As if to underline his apparent lack of concern for the fate of Australia, Churchill tried to divert the AIF troops to Burma when they were returning by sea to Australia. If the Australian AIF troops had been diverted to Burma they would almost certainly have been lost in another British Far East debacle, and Australia would have been under much greater threat from Japan. Although subjected to verbal bullying by Churchill, Prime Minister Curtin was resolute, and insisted that the Australian AIF troops be allowed to return and defend their own country from a threatened Japanese invasion.

On their return to Australia in March 1942, these seasoned AIF veterans were not sent to New Guinea to defend Port Moresby against a very real threat of Japanese attack, but were kept in Australia to defend the mainland against a possible Japanese invasion. The 7th Division was initially deployed on the coast just north of Brisbane to defend the so-called "Brisbane Line".