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September 1942 marked the high-point of Axis conquest in World War II. In the Pacific, Japan's soldiers had seemed unstoppable. However, the tide was about to turn.
On Sunday 6 September 1942, Japanese land forces suffered their first conclusive defeat at the hands of the Allies. At Milne Bay in Papua, a predominantly Australian force fought for two weeks to successfully defend a vital airstrip against a determined Japanese invasion. The victorious Australian army units were crucially supported by two locally-based squadrons of RAAF Kittyhawks.
Milne Bay was a significant turning point in the Pacific War. It received worldwide publicity at the time, but has since been largely forgotten. It deserves to be remembered.
In the first half of 1942, Port Moresby provided the only substantial Allied airbase anywhere on the huge island of New Guinea. The Japanese, following their dramatic early successes in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, made the capture of Port Moresby one of their key objectives for strengthening their Pacific defensive perimeter. The same Japanese plans also anticipated the acquisition of several other bases, such as Guadalcanal and Midway (both fated to become the sites of pivotal battles).
Milne Bay is located at the far eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
Port Moresby became the scene of RAAF 75 Squadron’s epic 44-day air-defence campaign in March-April 1942. Their Kittyhawks inflicted significant losses on the Japanese fighter and bomber arms, whilst providing vital cover for the Allied military build-up in Papua. It is a measure of the intensity of that campaign that almost every 75 Squadron Kittyhawk was either lost or written-off within those few weeks. 75 Squadron was withdrawn to Australia to re-equip, handing over the aerial defence of Port Moresby to USAAF units. Their next role would be in the defence of Milne Bay.
The Allies had already seen a pressing need to establish more airbases to Australia’s north. The suitability of Milne Bay actually came to Allied attention through the decoding of Japanese plans to establish their own base in the area. The Allies seized the initiative and Australian troops were landed there first, in mid-June 1942.
This pre-emptive occupation of Milne Bay shows just how strategically important the secret American and Australian codebreaking efforts of the time were. Codebreaking had already allowed the attempted Japanese amphibious invasion of Port Moresby to be turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea on 7-8 May 1942. Then, on the 8th of June, brilliant American decoding efforts permitted a relatively light US carrier force to surprise and defeat a much larger Japanese naval force in the pivotal Battle of Midway. In a similar manner, on the 7th of August, information from the codebreakers guided the US Marines in capturing the airfield that the Japanese had been constructing on Guadalcanal.
Jungle-clad mountains along the side of Milne Bay.
Milne Bay is a V-shaped rift that cuts 30 kilometres into the far eastern tip of the island of New Guinea. This location dominates the sea lanes towards Port Moresby and Northern Queensland. The Bay has palm-fringed beaches backed by cloud-shrouded mountains, but the initial impression of a tropical paradise was soon dispelled for the men who arrived there to fight.
Construction of three Allied airstrips at the head of the bay was planned. However, as events transpired, only one had been established by the time that the Japanese invaded in August 1942. The order to start airfield construction at Milne Bay was issued on the 12th of June; just one week after the site had first been reconnoitred from the air. Mechanised US Engineer units, assisted by Australian Militia troops and local Papuan villagers, commenced an intensive programme of airstrip, wharf and road construction. Clearings were rapidly cut through the coconut palm plantations and an innovative American ‘Marston Mat’ runway was laid. This comprised pierced steel planks ('PSP') 0.25 inches thick but lightened with dozens of circular holes stamped through the structure. The planks clipped together to provide a firm surface (essential in Milne Bay’s quagmire conditions, where daily torrential rain was the norm).
A Kittyhawk taxies over 'Marston Mat' pierced-steel planking laid on the mud at Milne Bay.
(Also widely known as 'Marsden Mat' - the correct name is Marston, after the site of the first such installation in North Carolina,
which was later disassembled and rebuilt near Townsville Qld. in 1942.)
Despite chronic equipment shortages and adverse tropical weather, a rudimentary airbase was ready within six weeks. It was named Gurney Strip in honour of a Port Moresby aviation pioneer who had been killed while guiding an American B-26 crew on a mission. The rapid commissioning of this airstrip represented a considerable achievement, as most of the people involved were only just learning their jobs and there had been significant confusion in the command structure. Matters had been made worse by an oppressive policy of secrecy and the chaotic dispersal of essential stores in Port Moresby to avoid Japanese bombing. In addition, malarial mosquitoes swarmed over the site and initial inadequate disease control led to serious sickness rates.
By June 26th, the personnel of the Milne Bay Radar Station had commenced the difficult job of erecting their 35-tonne radar aerial with makeshift tools. The Radar Station was operational by the 8th of August, but because of the surrounding mountains it could only provide warnings of medium to high-altitude attacks. Wisely, a network of ‘coast watcher’ observer units, equipped with radios, was also set up at strategic points around the coastline to provide visual warnings of incoming raids.
The Milne Bay radar station, camouflaged amongst the coconut palms.
Meanwhile, 75 Squadron had been taking delivery of their replacement Kittyhawks in Queensland, rebuilding their strength under the command of Squadron Leader Les Jackson. (The brother of 3 Squadron's "Old John" Jackson, who had led 75 Squadron during their previous combat tour in Moresby, eventually being killed in action.) 75 Sqn. now boasted a core of experienced pilots who had seen combat with the Japanese over Port Moresby, plus a strong new component of veteran RAAF pilots who had been repatriated from England.
Another newly-established Kittyhawk squadron, No.76, had also been working-up in Townsville. Their Squadron Leader was Peter Turnbull, another veteran of Port Moresby and the Middle East [with 3 Sqn.] . 76 Squadron was also salted with experienced fighter pilots, including the celebrated European Spitfire ace 'Bluey' Truscott.
These two squadrons deployed to Port Moresby before flying on to Milne Bay. The first 76 Squadron Kittyhawks landed at the new airstrip on the 22nd of July following a dive-bombing mission over the north coast. Both Kittyhawk squadrons moved in permanently over the next few days.
The arriving Kittyhawk pilots gained an unforgettable initial impression of Milne Bay’s muddy conditions. As each fighter touched down, huge gouts of mud splashed through the gaps in the metal runway and rapidly coated the aircraft with ooze. The Kittyhawks slithered to an unsteady halt on the slippery surface, some ripping chunks of rubber from their tyres, but everyone got down safely. The fighters were joined by detachments of Hudson reconnaissance bombers from 32 and 6 Squadrons. RAAF personnel numbers at Gurney Strip rapidly built up to over 600.
A Hudson sprays mud as it passes down the pierced-steel airstrip.
Allied ground forces at Milne Bay reached a total of around 7,500 Australian Army (both regular and militia infantry forces, plus some artillery), and 1,400 American airfield construction engineers (rather lavishly armed and undertaking the first US ground-combat mission in the PNG theatre), all under the command of Australian Major General Cyril Clowes. The Japanese remained unaware of the significant scale of the defensive forces awaiting them.
Kittyhawk pilots, August 1942. The previous experience of 3 Squadron personnel from North Africa was instrumental
in quickly setting up the two Australian squadrons (No.75 and No.76) that defended Milne Bay.
The Kittyhawks commenced familiarisation flights and air defence patrols around the area, while the Hudsons prowled the ocean, searching for the expected Japanese invasion force. Some early Japanese reconnaissance flights were detected and fighters were sent to find them, but no interceptions could be made.
By the 4th of August the Japanese had become aware of the new airbase. Gurney Strip was attacked by four Mitsubishi Zero fighters and one Adachi Val dive-bomber. One Kittyhawk was destroyed on the ground. The eight Kittyhawks already aloft on air-defence patrol were able to engage the raiders, claiming the Val (76 Squadron’s first ‘kill’) and two of the Zeros. This aggressive reaction helped to discourage further Japanese raids for some days.
On the 7th of August four Kittyhawks from 76 Squadron ran short of fuel, in stormy weather, attempting to intercept a Japanese aircraft spotted by coastwatchers. These P-40s had to force-land in a large patch of kunai grass on Goodenough Island, located around 100km north of Milne Bay. Recovering these aircraft from the two-metre-high kunai became a major exercise. Over the next week, a crude take-off path was cleared with the assistance of local natives. Three Kittyhawks were then flown back. (The fourth had crashed while landing, fortunately without injury to its pilot. Valuable spare parts were salvaged from this wreck, including the entire engine assembly, which was laboriously portaged several kilometres to a waiting boat.)
On August 11th, 22 Kittyhawks from the two Squadrons were scrambled to meet the next Japanese raid, mounted by a dozen Zeros. In a vigorous battle that rapidly broke down into individual combats amongst the billowing clouds, three Zeros were claimed as probably destroyed by the Kittyhawks and another three were claimed by the airfield defences. Four Kittyhawks and their pilots were lost.
One of the 40mm Bofors guns used for airfield defence at Milne Bay.
Note the Kittyhawk landing on the strip in the background.
Fortunately Gurney Strip was spared a planned large-scale attack by Japanese bombers based at Rabaul, as these were directed instead against the American beachhead at Guadalcanal (where the US Marines had gone ashore on the 7th of August).
Wear and tear on the Kittyhawks was accumulating due to their continuous activity in this wild environment. In a takeoff accident on the 16th of August, a Kittyhawk burst a tyre and careered into a parked Hudson bomber, wrecking both aircraft and killing one of the Hudson’s crew.
On the 23rd of August a Japanese patrol of a dozen aircraft was detected by radar, but they could not be intercepted in the thick clouds. One Kittyhawk climbing to intercept was jumped by the Zeros, but successfully broke contact. Happily, Gurney Strip was also concealed by the cloud cover; the Japanese did not strafe it.
The first element of the anticipated Japanese invasion force was spotted on the 24th of August. A small flotilla of seven landing barges carrying 350 Japanese Marines was observed motoring down the north coast from their forward base at Buna. The Kittyhawks were not able to respond immediately to this threat – they had other problems on their hands. Both squadrons scrambled to meet morning and afternoon raids by Zeros. The raids were broken up in a confusion of aerobatics between the towering clouds. A few of the Japanese fighters managed to descend and strafe the airfield, although without serious effect. Two Zeros were claimed "probably destroyed" and no Kittyhawks were lost.
A Zero strafes the strip from tree-top level on 24 August 1942.
The seven Japanese barges were run up on the shore of Goodenough Island, to the north of Milne Bay, on the afternoon of the 25th, to allow the Japanese Marines to rest before their attack. This force intended to motor across to the mainland in their barges and attack through the northern hills to outflank the airstrip defences. However, on that same afternoon the Marines' pleasant island campsite was rudely disrupted when eight 75 Squadron Kittyhawks from Milne Bay swept in low and set all the barges and their cargoes on fire. - The northern component of the Japanese attack was completely stranded, well away from its objective!
Also on the 25th, Allied aircraft and coastwatchers spotted the main Japanese invasion convoy making its way from Rabaul. The convoy comprised two transports carrying more than 1000 Japanese Marines, accompanied by a strong naval escort that included the cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuda.
Japanese light cruiser Tenryu. [Image from the excellent Imperial Japanese Navy website.]
A planned strike by B-17 bombers from Northern Queensland could not locate the convoy due to dense rain clouds, but the Hudsons and Kittyhawks from Milne Bay were able to press several attacks under the low cloud-base. There was not enough clear air to allow accurate dive-bombing by the Kittyhawks, but they did cause some damage with strafing. A Hudson hit one of the troop transports with a bomb, but the Japanese were then able to continue their approach under cover of darkness. The single Allied warship in Milne Bay, HMAS Arunta, was ordered out of the way of this strong Japanese task force.
The strange paradoxes of war in the South Pacific are well-illustrated by an incident that occurred after this action. One 75 Squadron Kittyhawk, flown by Alan Whetters in an attempted second strike on the convoy, became lost. With daylight rapidly running out, Whetters spotted a small wharf on Sideia Island near the mouth of Milne Bay. He decided to ditch nearby. He belly-landed his plane gently in the shallow waters of a coral reef. The wharf belonged to a mission station and Whetters accepted their hospitality for the night. The next morning he awoke to the glorious sight of a big plate of eggs and tomatoes being delivered to him in this idyllic beach setting by a bare-breasted native girl. (Both the menu and the mode of service were very much unknown back at Gurney!) After a while, Whetters again focussed on the fate of his aircraft and became determined to salvage it. With the help of the mission inhabitants he constructed a makeshift raft and successfully buoyed up the airframe. A launch was then summoned from the Milne Bay wharf to tow it back, but this tow was eventually abandoned as too risky. The Kittyhawk had to be sunk.
The ghostly wreck of Alan Whetters' Kittyhawk can still be visited by divers today.
[Image from the outstanding Pacific Wrecks website.]
The Japanese main force made an unopposed landing on the jungle-clad northern shore of Milne Bay on the night of 25/26 August. They advanced westwards 2km in the darkness to make contact with the Australian defenders at KB Mission, about 8km east of the Kittyhawk base at Gurney.
The Japanese Marines had arrived with twelve motorised landing craft. Ominously, such assault boats had been used elsewhere to outflank Allied defensive lines. In Malaya for example, a large British Commonwealth defending force had been outmanoeuvred and defeated by a considerably smaller Japanese army using such tactics. In a further echo of the Malayan campaign, the invaders had brought two light tanks ashore as well. These initially caused havoc, because the Australians had been unable to bring their anti-tank guns up along the boggy coastal tracks and their "sticky bomb" anti-tank grenades were hopeless.
However, the threat presented by the Japanese landing craft came to nothing as dawn broke on the 26th. The Aussie Kittyhawks roared into action, sinking and burning the barges and scattering bombs amongst the supply dumps that had been established on the Japanese beachhead. The continuous effort of the local fighters was supplemented by two strikes from American B-25 and B-26 bombers. One RAAF 6 Squadron Hudson also destroyed a large cache of drums of Japanese petrol that had been concealed in the waters of the bay. A significant proportion of the Japanese supplies were destroyed before they could be distributed to their troops.
A stranded landing-barge and wrecked stores litter the Japanese landing site.
At the same time, USAAF air strikes on the Japanese airstrips at Buna and Rabaul, combined with the prohibitive flying weather, helped to suppress Japanese air support for their troops. Another cheering piece of news on that first day of the land battle came when one of the withdrawing Japanese transports was claimed sunk by a strike force of eight American B-17s (but actually it was only damaged). One B-17 was shot down during this low-level strike.
The Kittyhawks continuously patrolled and strafed. Mud coated the aircraft due to their frequent takeoffs and landings in the tropical conditions. Buckets of water had to be thrown over the airframes so that they could be inspected for damage. The ground personnel worked incessantly in the rain and ankle-deep mud to keep the fighters flying.
Armourers at Milne Bay attach a bomb to a Kittyhawk.
In another rather comic commentary on the local living conditions, several Kittyhawk pilots had contracted diarrhoea, which proved very inconvenient (to say the least) if they were caught short while flying combat missions! (Their monotonous diet of Army baked beans hardly assisted matters!)
On the afternoon of the 26th of August, several of the Kittyhawks made bomb strikes on the Japanese forward positions in preparation for a counterattack by Australian Militia troops. Unfortunately the Australian attack was turned back after dark and the Japanese advanced, assisted by bombardment from a Japanese cruiser that had entered the bay. (Japanese naval shelling of the airstrip area after dark became a regular event over the next two weeks.)
At dawn on the 27th the Kittyhawks were again strafing intensively. Later, their air defence patrol was well-positioned to bounce an incoming Japanese raid of eight Val dive bombers and 12 escorting Zeros. Over the battlefield the Zeros harassed a US B-17 bomber and a flight of B-26s. They then strafed Gurney Strip, where the dense anti-aircraft fire claimed two of the attackers. At least two further Zeros were shot down by the Kittyhawks, for the loss of one Kittyhawk and pilot. The Vals dropped their bombs (relatively ineffectually) on the Australian frontline positions. The Kittyhawks afterwards intercepted a flight of the escaping dive bombers, destroying at least one.
Japanese 'Val' dive bombers.
This day of high drama also saw the tragic death of 76 Squadron’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull (formerly of 3 Squadron). He crashed during a low-level strafing mission that had been targeting the high-priority Japanese tanks. His Kittyhawk smashed into the jungle after clipping a tree near his target. Following the death of Turnbull, command of 76 Squadron passed to Bluey Truscott.
Once darkness had grounded the Kittyhawks, the Japanese troops regrouped and made repeated attacks, spearheaded by their tanks, on the Australian defensive line near the KB Mission. The vulnerable Australians were eventually compelled to withdraw after resisting several assaults. Fortunately the muddy conditions later stranded both Japanese tanks and they had to be abandoned by their crews.
Australian troops advance past the bogged Japanese light tanks.
The Milne Bay rain and mud stopped the tanks where the infantry's "sticky bombs" had failed.
By dawn on the 28th of August the Japanese had pressed forward to the cleared area intended for the No.3 airstrip, only 3km away from the active Gurney Strip. This clearing, right across the coastal plain, fortunately created a significant obstacle to Japanese infiltration towards Gurney. First light on the 28th witnessed frantic activity from the Kittyhawks. A steady shuttle of fighters took off and poured streams of machine-gun fire into the Japanese positions. The Kittyhawks’ guns were often firing before their landing gear had retracted.
Six USAAF B-26s also pattern-bombed the Japanese front. Rear areas were then attacked by the Kittyhawks. Their 50-calibre ammunition was used up at a prodigious rate and an American B-17 flew in to deliver more. The P-40s’ gun barrels regularly wore out and had to be replaced.
There was excellent co-operation between the Kittyhawks and the troops on the ground. Novel methods of target indication were quickly improvised that were later to become standard practice. Strafing targets for the Kittyhawks were indicated with flares and smoke shells fired through the treetops. (Amazingly this practice was subject to carping criticism at the time from Australian-based senior officers because it wasn’t in the rulebook!)
This air support lifted the morale of the Australian troops and froze all Japanese movement during daylight. Australian patrols probed several kilometres into Japanese territory without attracting Japanese fire - possibly because the concealed Marines did not want to reveal their positions to the Kittyhawks.
However, there was great foreboding as to what the night might hold. The decision was made to move the camps of the airfield support personnel several kilometres to the rear. Chaotic scenes and the spreading of wild rumours ensued. As a further precaution against the valuable fighter aircraft being overrun during the night, the pilots were ordered to fly their Kittys to Port Moresby at the end of this afternoon. While a logical safeguard, the departure of the aircraft at this critical juncture only added to the misgivings of those left behind.
Meanwhile, wild suppositions also dominated at General McArthur’s Allied GHQ in Brisbane, where ill-informed staff officers were reacting badly to the territorial losses and calling for offensive action from the troops at Milne Bay. But Major-General Cyril Clowes, the on-site commander, wisely husbanded his resources.
Major-General Cyril Clowes
The Allies had 9,500 personnel at Milne Bay, theoretically outnumbering the Japanese by nearly ten to one. However, the possibility of further Japanese landings in other parts of the Bay also had to be guarded against. Fortunately the Japanese did not attempt any further advances that night. They were awaiting reinforcements for what they hoped would be the final battle.
For some of the nervous Allied troops, especially in the rear areas, there seemed to be infiltrating enemies in every shadow. Given the recent fall of Singapore and other Allied disasters, uncertainty and alarmism were understandably rife. A farcical chain of events was triggered when, at around midnight, a wandering cow set off a landmine. Nervous gunfire broke out and rumours of a Japanese breakthrough spread rapidly. An Engineer officer who had been attaching demolition charges to the beer stocks of the Army canteen decided that the time had arrived to set them off! This huge explosion and fire added to the general confusion. The RAAF administration staff started burning their codebooks, but many of the more canny Australian soldiers simply helped themselves to some of the scattered beer bottles that had survived the canteen blast, before settling down for the night.
Things became more rational in the light of day. Early on the morning of 29 August, RAAF Group Captain 'Bull' Garing flew in to reassure the ground troops that the Kittyhawks would return. This they duly did, in the early afternoon. (Sadly, two P-40s and one pilot had been lost in accidents during this precautionary withdrawal. Although the two squadrons had at least gained some benefit from the overnight maintenance they received in Moresby.)
The P-40s were being refuelled and rearmed at Gurney when a new Japanese naval threat was spotted approaching Milne Bay. This fast convoy comprised one cruiser and eight destroyers that carried a total of 750 Japanese reinforcements. Poor visibility precluded the Kittyhawks delivering a strike against the incoming ships, although one Hudson did manage to press an attack. Most of the Kittyhawks were shortly able to put their bombs to good use on land targets in the battle zone, but darkness had fallen by the time they returned to Gurney. (A newly-arrived replacement pilot was killed, trying to land on the rudimentary flare-path.)
On the 30th, the Kittyhawks performed a full day of strafing and reconnaissance patrols, but the Japanese remained hidden in the jungle beyond the No.3 airstrip clearing. A further 130 fresh Japanese troops were landed by destroyer that evening and moved up.
At 3am on 31st of August, the Japanese committed their forces to an all-out night attack, making repeated “Banzai” charges across the clearing of the No.3 strip. Each of these attacks was broken up by heavy defensive fire from mortars, machine guns and artillery. The Japanese survivors withdrew into the jungle, leaving behind many casualties. When dawn broke it became clear that the Japanese had abandoned their position. The No.3 strip had performed a vital (somewhat unplanned!) defensive purpose. [After it was completed, it was named ‘Turnbull Strip’ in memory of 76 Squadron’s fallen Commanding Officer.]
Australian Militia troops at Milne Bay.
By 9am, under the protective wings of the Kittyhawks, Australian Army troops started an offensive push eastwards towards the Japanese beachhead. The swampy coastal jungle favoured the defenders but the advance pushed steadily forward. The two squadrons of Kittyhawks provided continuous strafing support for this movement, including a pinpoint attack that silenced a troublesome Japanese artillery piece. Squadron Leader Bluey Truscott and Flying Officer Crossing dove vertically from 2500 feet as they poured fire into the gun emplacement. They were later presented with the disabled field gun as a souvenir. Fresh landing barges, which had been delivered to the Japanese overnight, were also put out of action. That evening, as a direct consequence of the Kittyhawks keeping the Japanese troops pinned down during the day, a group of 300 of them were ambushed by Australian units as they attempted to return to their lines after dark.
The next day, Australian troops pushed forward with the Kittyhawks providing air cover. By the 2nd of September, they had advanced 6km along the jungle-clad foreshores of the bay. The weather was uniformly stormy but the Kittyhawks continued to fly whenever possible. Over the next three days they made several strafing and bombing attacks as the Australian Army probed forward, breaking each line of Japanese resistance. By the 5th of September the main Japanese supply base had been captured. On the night of 5/6 September, the Japanese Navy evacuated 1300 survivors from the north-eastern shoreline of Milne Bay using the cruiser Tenryu. They left behind 600 dead.
Despite appearances, these men are not soldiers, but the RAAF crew of No.6 Squadron Hudson A16-246.
They flew low-level attacks on the Japanese naval fleet off Milne Bay. Their fur-lined flying boots
and tin hats make an interesting fashion statement in the sauna-like environment.
Organised Japanese resistance had ceased, but a few further skirmishes occurred later on the 6th of September as die-hard Japanese stragglers were eliminated. Other Japanese survivors disappeared into the jungle in an attempt to walk back to their base at Buna on the north coast. These men were destined either to starve in the wilderness or be hunted down by Australian patrols.
The Battle of Milne Bay marked the turning-point of the entire Allied campaign in Papua. In the much larger and more famous Kokoda Trail battle (which was exploding at the same time 300km to the west) the advancing Japanese Army ended up being ordered into retreat because the defeat at Milne Bay had denied them the required air cover for their Moresby assault.
75 and 76 Squadrons were hailed as “the decisive factor” in this first successful Allied defence against the Japanese invader. By stranding the northern Japanese force on Goodenough Island, maintaining air superiority over the battlefield, and destroying the mobility and supplies of the main enemy force, they had ensured the conditions for victory.
While RAAF Kittyhawks were to be involved in many other famous battles (eventually to become the RAAF's most numerous aircraft type) the stakes were never as high, nor the responsibility as focussed, as it was at Milne Bay.
Ironically, by 1945, Milne Bay had been largely forgotten; crowded out by the news of the many other victorious battles that had followed. But there is no denying that, for the mud-soaked RAAF Kittyhawks, this was their finest hour.
Pictures from the collection of the Australian War Memorial.
Milne Bay battlefield
memorial plaque website.
"Milne Bay 1942" Book by Clive Baker, Greg Knight
"The Decisive Factor: 75 & 76 Squadrons, Port Moresby and Milne Bay, 1942" Book by David Wilson.
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