Family History

Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

Soldier Superb: Australian Infantry Training in WW2

Tough training made Australian soldiers tough fighters.

A revolution took place in military training in Australia in the early days of the Second World War. When the Australian Military Forces first went into camp in 1939 there was a feeling – in a naive Australian style – that their time there would be something more like football training, and that before long they would all join their British counterparts in adventures in the Middle East and North Africa.

That was before late 1941, before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, before Darwin and Broome and the threat of invasion became real and urgent; before Australian and Japanese had faced off in the jungle.

After that, the training began to grow steadily tougher and tougher. For the kind of combat encountered in New Guinea every man was taught and trained to make it his private war. The Japanese soldier was taught to die for his country. These men would be taught to kill for their country.

Lessons of the early campaigns of the war such as Libya, Greece and Crete were brought back by such men as Lieutenant General Stanley George Savige to be thoroughly examined and applied. Lt. General Gordon Bennett after escaping from Malaya, Lt. General Sydney Rowell returning from Kokoda, and many more officers from the New Guinea and other campaigns added new ideas to the education of the Australian soldier.

So training at Seymour, at Puckapunyal, at Ingleburn, in all the camps, took on a new form.

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Canungra, Queensland, October 1943. Members of an Australian infantry unit engaged in their training course at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre. In this photograph the men are practising taking cover and using small foxholes. [AWM 069405]

To rise to the challenge of enlistment in the Australian Military Forces at the outbreak of World War II, one would be met with training regime that changed a person. By the time your training was complete, you would be expected to run 250 yards and in stride jump from a trench and bayonet three standing; jump a log and bayonet three prone; leap a four-feet trench and bayonet six standing in pairs; jump a log through a double-apron fence of barbed wire; cross three rows of trip wire and bayonet three more standing; climb a seven-feet vertical hurdle of logs; drop four feet, climb an embankment and jump into a slit trench; fire three rounds at a target 30 yards away; throw grenades; leap from eight to ten feet into a river four feet deep; wade 20 yards and climb the opposite embankment; jump a final log and bayonet another three prone… in one minute 43 seconds.

You would train, wearing only shorts, to crash barbed wire to the ground and hold it down with your body while your mates went through. You would train, unarmed, to disarm an opponent of his bayonet and break his neck with your elbow. You would also train with a 60 pound pack, marching 25 miles in a day, carrying out military exercises such as tank hunting or a village raid on the way all while refraining from using your full water-bottle.

Training at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, Queensland (now the Australian Army Land Warfare Centre) then continued where normal battle training left off. One particular area of focus for the Australian jungle fighter was the development of point shooting – also known as target- or threat-focused shooting. They were to fire the Lee–Enfield SMLE Mk III .303 from the hip, and with deadly accuracy, at ten yards range. Close-quarters fighting made it hard to apply proper marksmanship techniques, which is why point advocated a less sighting-based style of shooting.

They were also trained to use the .22 calibre Owen submachine gun so that even with a number of fast-moving enemy soldiers attacking every round had to count. Absolute team-work was the first essential. First a section was allotted tasks so that every man in it is given the job to which he is best suited by nature, psychologically and physically. The man with the cat’s eye, always alert and a quick observer, becomes the scout. The husky to whose broad shoulders were assigned the additional ten pounds of the Bren gun became the Bren gunner.

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Canungra, Queensland, November 1943. Sapper Walters of the Australian Training Centre (Jungle Warfare) setting a booby trap on the mopping up course at the centre. [AWM 060661]

The jungle fighters were then shown the Japanese way with booby traps, and how to use them for themselves. The study of gelignite and grenade, fuse and delay; the use of ingenuity in making and applying traps out of the very jungle itself. They learned from the enemy that the right improvised trap in the hands of an enthusiast can be made an instrument of terror, can halt a unit through fear of the unknown, and plunge a bewildered enemy into panic.

They were schooled to work miracles of deduction when they were confronted with a reconstruction of an abandoned Japanese camp, the wreck of a barge on a beach, or a medical unit’s stores. They could tell the strength of the enemy, the name of the commander, his orders and intentions up to the time of his destruction or departure, the number of his casualties from wounds and disease, the length of his stay in the country and his prospect, if he still survives, of remaining; his physical fitness and morale.

Psychological endurance was also drilled through obstacle courses with full sound effects. With pack and rifle they marched, doubled, climbed and descended, crawled through streams and hollow logs, grass and barbed wire – but this time with the cacophony of battle ringing in the ears: gelignite bursting, machine guns barking, rifles and heavier weapons firing all around. Noise could not deflect a soldier from his purpose any more than mere danger.

They were taught to march increasing distances, to be able to carry 28 kilograms (61 pounds) as well as rifle or Owen gun 23 kilometres (14 mi.) through the jungle, sometimes up vertical slopes or down inclines equally precipitous. They trained to climb ropes with feet and hands, to negotiate improvised ladders; to cross streams or ravines by every conceivable type of bridge from a single wire, a sapling, or log, to a flying fox. To conquer fear of heights, the would cross such bridges at a height of 6 metres (20 ft.) or more where a slip, even in training, might mean death or maiming.

The jungle fighter’s training culminated in a trek, including the inevitable up and downhill climbs, but in the course of which not only was nerve and physical endurance tested to the uttermost, but also his intelligence and observation. Now they had learned to reduce pack supplies to prime necessities. To demonstrate living on emergency rations and availing themselves of indigenous foods, the edible fruits and plants and roots of the jungle and rain-forest trees and undergrowth.

These were the conditions that turned citizens into soldiers, workers into warriors. All these accomplishments, and “iron muscles, iron nerve, and the eyes of a cat,” would have entitled someone as long ago as 1942 to a place in the ranks of the Australian Military Forces, or in the A.I.F. in Australia.

The Australian Soldier in New Guinea – Jungle Genius

During the New Guinea campaigns of World War II, Australian soldiers coined a phrase which described what it took survive the conditions they endured – Jungle Genius.

In warfare, the word ‘jungle’ can mean so little or so much. In New Guinea, ‘jungle fighting’ did not mean merely battling with mortars and high trajectory guns over impenetrable forest and moss walls against an enemy less than a grenade’s throw away or ambushing him from vine-laced screens of undergrowth. It meant wading neck-deep in the black ooze of the sak-sak swamps, plunging blind across a beach by night, bayonet high, into the inscrutable silence of the fringing bush, picking your way over the sole-searing cracked rocks of a dry river bed, open as the day to the fire of the commanding hills, nosing your way – grenade in hand – over the one-man fronts of the razor-back.

Stretcher bearers carrying a wounded mate down along a muddy track north of Gusika while men of militia 29th/46th Battalion plod up a steep grade on their way to contact the Japanese.

Stretcher bearers carrying a wounded mate down along a muddy track north of Gusika while men of militia 29th/46th Battalion plod up a steep grade on their way to contact the Japanese. [AWM 016298]

Jungle Genius was an infinite capacity for taking pain. It was an acquired resiliency to the thousand blows that the enemy and nature could inflict in the miasmatic stronghold of tooth and claw. It was the faculty to fight on when the soldier’s head was whirling with malaria, when his bones cracked with dengue, when his stomach was drained with dysentery, when his tongue was sandpaper-parched with the curse of the hard, hot kunai country. Jungle Genius was the grit to endure his boots and clothes waterlogged, soaked with sweat and ooze in the mountains of mud; when fear is in the trembling of a leaf, and murder rather than mercy rains from the heavens; when nothing is what it seems except a trick by a cat-cunning enemy. Jungle Genius was above all the power not only to conquer these terrors but to tame them to one’s will and need, and to enlist them as allies and use them as ammunition against the enemy.

1943-01-27. Papua. Allied advance on Sanananda. Water, mud and slush are almost the Allied troops’ inseparable companions in Papua. For weeks the Allies had been advancing, some times up to their thighs in mud. Ploughing their way through the inevitable mud Americans carry small arms ammunition to the forward areas.

1943-01-27. Papua. Allied advance on Sanananda. Water, mud and slush were the Allied troops inseparable companions in Papua. For weeks the Allies had been advancing, some times up to their thighs in mud. Ploughing their way through the inevitable mud these Americans carry small arms ammunition to the forward areas. [AWM 014244]

It is because Australian soldiers acquired these peculiar qualities – albeit at appalling cost and by bitter experience – that the trail from Salamaua to Saidor, up the north-east coast of New Guinea, became littered with enemy corpses. Some of these, indeed, were cut down by bomb, shell, bullet and bayonet, but many perished in their agonies of thirst and starvation, of dysentery and fever, or fell miserably into the pitfalls of mountain gorge and stream and swamp, too weak to save themselves. Meanwhile, the Australian soldier learned to slip like ghosts through enemy positions, to sink his supply barges and cut his life-line on the land, to snipe from great heights keeping him day and night in a perpetual sweat of panic. Australians learned all this, learned it the hard way.

Jungle fighting didn’t come naturally to the Australian. With a very British respect for conventions – notwithstanding an adventurous background and the free and easy life of the open spaces – the Australian soldiers had put their ideas for administering and acquiring sudden death into a neat compartment, accepting a dignified code of rules for the exchange of shot and stab. They were astonished to find that the Japanese Imperial warrior didn’t fight that way. It took the disaster of Malaya and the loss of a entire proud division to teach the Australian Army that Tojo and Churchill weren’t mates. Australians learned and the Americans learned.

“In the early, untried days on the Kokoda Trail the we thought we knew all the answers. What a lot of rot it was We said, this Atebrin. Who was going to dose himself with yellow pills six times a week and dye his good Australian integuement an unhealthy gamboge that made him look like a Jap, just because some fussy M.O. flattered himself he had devised a dodge for beating the mozzies? And who was going to dope his drinking water with chlorine till it smelt like an out-patients’ department and tasted like a Sydney man’s idea of the Yarra? What could be healthier to drink than the water of this pellucid mountain stream? And what pansy thought up this idea of dusting yourself with baby powder. Who did he think we were — the Dionne Quins? And what was the objection to wearing shorts, anyhow? Weren’t they ideal Wear in this humid and tropical heat? And as for dolling yourself up in green shirts and pants like Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, blimey, Teddy, did they want to make a Russian Ballet out of us altogether, or what? Well, we lived and learned. And some of us died and didn’t.” – from Soldier Superb by Alan Dawes

1943-08-04. New Guinea. Making the best of not altogether ideal conditions Australians built this camp in the jungle on a hillside near Mubo. [AWM 015395]

By the time they had crossed the Owen Stanley ranges, a New Guinea soldier would as soon go without his rifle as his Atebrin (anti-malarial medication), they would go thirsty all day rather than drink unchlorinated water, invariably carried foot powder – preferably baby powder – in their packs and watched their toes as well as their clothes for any sign of rot or infection. Shorts were completely banned even for day wear. In the somewhat rarefied military atmosphere of Port Moresby, jungle green was the proudest badge the fighting Australian sported. Indeed, in New Guinea one would only see an Australian in any other scheme of decoration when they were bathing nude in streams or sea or rolling yellow in the mud on some wet mountain side.

These, then, were just the outward and visible signs. They symbolized a tremendous awareness, on the part of staff and soldier, of the significance of the jungle as foe and friend – an awareness which became the basis for evolving a scientific approach to the problems of war in the tropics. It was clear that by war’s end, medicine had also fought magnificently in the Pacific Islands campaigns – not only in healing, repairing, curing and comforting, but in arming the soldier in particular against the diseases of body and soul that lurked in the New Guinea jungles.

Jungle warfare presented new complexities every hour, new fields for ingenuity and resource. The Australian soldiers in New Guinea excelled in it because they added the fruits of training and experience to instinct and “some vestige of sub-conscious memory.” Also, they were not above learning from an otherwise despised but undoubtedly practised adversary, and not too proud to watch and emulate their humble native Papuan allies, those “erstwhile head-hunters, masters of the wiles and ways of man-tracking, have contributed not a little to the mental equipment of ‘man-belong-a-Sydney’, who has educated himself to walk and see with feline stealth, to lie dog-prone holding his breath, to go long stretches without food and water and find them in wild places, to observe the enemy from the  movements of bush and bird.”

Above all, the Australian added to his stock-in-trade the means to surprise and stun his enemy.

ANZAC Day Edition: Dowsett’s War, Part 7 – The Lighthorseman

Anzac Day, 25th April 2016 – Lest We Forget

“At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man – they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze – knee to knee and horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points…” Trooper Ion Idriess, 5th Light Horse Regiment AIF

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

horseAs mentioned in Dowsett’s War – Part 3, discovering family service records from the First World War – beginning with the Gallipoli records – opened up not only a whole new area of family history but also offered a new perspective on the war itself, especially as the research that I was doing coincided with the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. In fact, 2015 was celebrated as ‘100 Years of Anzac’ throughout Australia with many related events throughout the year. The knowledge of my grandfather’s service had already been a source of immense pride, but finding out about the World War I stories took me on an amazing journey of historical discovery.

While doing genealogical research last Christmas I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Anzac Treasures – The Gallipoli Collection of the Australian War Memorial and as I was already looking into the service records of the family’s WWI veterans, it was a scintillating read. More of a photographic tome showcasing the War Memorial’s Gallipoli collection, it served to encapsulate the campaign as it was seen and experienced by the Australians that were there in a way that showed me exactly what was missing from my own understanding of the AIF in WW1.

In addition, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) website features a Gallipoli – The First Day 3D interactive experience which I viewed along with the Gallipoli miniseries aired on the Nine Network in April 2015 as the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated beach landings grew closer. Saturating myself in this high quality historical research and entertainment which has been on offer this year while simultaneously following my own family’s path through the Great War increased my interest and changed my perspective on the war and on that period of history in general.

So it was with renewed clarity and insight into the Great War period that I began to look at the story of Jack Arthur Dowsett, a Lieutenant with the 7th Light Horse Regiment.

Enlistment

Born to James Francis Dowsett and Eliza Hannah Dowsett of Oxford Street, Paddington, New South Wales (NSW) in Australia on the 15th of December 1895, Jack Arthur Dowsett was already a military man when war was declared. A carpenter by trade at age 19, he had already served 18 months with the NSW 11th (Australian Horse) Australian Light Horse Regiment and 3 months with the NSW Light Horse Militia. The Australian Light Horse brigades were mounted troops capable of fighting both as cavalry and mounted infantry, who served in the Second Boer War and World War I. During the inter-war years, a number of regiments such as the ones of which young Jack Dowsett was a member were raised as part of Australia’s reserve military forces.

The light horse troops were like mounted infantry in that they usually fought dismounted, using their horses as transport to the battlefield and as a means of swift disengagement when retreating or retiring. A famous exception to this rule though was the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. In 1918, some light horse regiments were equipped with sabres, enabling them to fight in a conventional cavalry role in the advance on Damascus. However, unlike mounted infantry, the light horse also performed certain cavalry roles, such as scouting and screening, while mounted.

Jack was immediately assigned to the newly formed 7th Light Horse Regiment which was officially raised at Sydney in October 1914 with personnel drawn predominantly from the Light Horse Militia of the state of New South Wales. The 7th was made up of 25 officers and 497 other ranks serving in three squadrons, each of six troops. Each troop was divided into eight sections of four men each. During battle, a trooper from each section was nominated as horse handler, which ultimately reduced the regiments’ active rifle strength. Once established, the regiment was assigned to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, serving alongside the 5th and 6th Light Horse Regiments.

HMAT A33 Ayrshire, in dazzle camouflage livery

HMAT A33 Ayrshire, in dazzle camouflage livery

On 21 December 1914 7th Light Horse Regiment departed Sydney on the HMAT Ayrshire, a 7,750 ton cargo steamship leased by the Commonwealth of Australia from the The Scottish Shire Line Ltd. The A and B Squadrons of the 7th sailed on the Ayrshire to Egypt and disembarked on 1 February 1915. Jack Dowsett was with the B Squadron.

Gallipoli

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Members of the 7th Light Horse Regiment on the front line at Anzac in August 1915. [AWM J06251]

The light horse were considered unsuitable for the initial operations at Gallipoli, but were subsequently deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry. The 2nd Light Horse Brigade landed in late May 1915 and was attached to the 1st Australian Division. The 7th Light Horse became responsible for a sector on the far right of the ANZAC line, and played a defensive role (until it finally left the peninsula on 20 December 1915).

 

 

Disembarking from HMT Lutzow on May 15th 1915 Jack Dowsett became part of the Australian Middle Eastern Forces. According to his AIF records, he was severely reprimanded at Anzac Cove for disobeying an order from a senior non-commissioned officer on June 30th. However, his skills as a soldier must have outshone his belligerence and he was made made Sergeant in August 1915. Like many at Gallipoli, Jack would succumb to dysentry the following month.

 

Egypt and Sinai

After the return to Egypt, the 7th Light Horse Regiment reformed and re-equipped. The reorganisation of the Light Horse led to the formation of the ANZAC Mounted Division to which the 7th Light Horse Regiment became a founding contingent. On 28 February 1916, the 7th moved to join its parent brigade, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which was taking part in the defence of the Suez Canal. The work was extremely hot and monotonous. They remained here until later being transferred to the Romani region to bolster the defence of that area. According to Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel, Commander of the ANZAC Mounted Division, “it was largely due to (the 7th Light Horse Regiment’s) stubborn defence and spirited counterattack, under the Leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel G. Macarthur Onslow, that the victory was so complete.”

They fought at the battle of Romani on 4 August, at Katia the following day, and were also involved in the advance that followed the Turks’ retreat back across the desert.

Palestine

The regiment spent late 1916 and early 1917 engaged on patrol work until the British advance into Palestine stalled before the Turkish bastion of Gaza. During this period Jack Dowsett was enlisted at Cavalry School of Instruction at Mazar in January and later with the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment El Fukhari. In March 1917, the 7th Light Horse Regiment found itself taking the lead role during the First Battle of Gaza. It was the 7th that led the ANZAC Mounted Division through the night to its position in the rear of the city, and which captured the Commander of Gaza Defence. While involved in the encirclement of the city as a prelude to its capture, the 7th Light Horse Regiment received the order to withdraw and return to the starting line. Grudgingly they did so, realising that the order had given the Turks a chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

The 7th Light Horse took part in the Second Battle of Gaza on 19 April 1917 and consequently suffered its heaviest losses since leaving Australia. Although the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was to be prepared for such a mounted attack, the 5th and 7th Light Horse held a wide stretch of the front line south of the Wadi Imleih. Here they were attacked by a squadron of Ottoman cavalry, supported by another cavalry regiment and a force of Bedouin. With their rifles on their backs the light horsemen were defenceless in mounted attack and they were forced back under cover of their machine gun detachments before eventually halting the Ottoman advance. Near dark, a threatened counterattack by infantry from Beersheba on the extreme right of the line failed to develop. The Anzac Mounted Division retired to water in the Wadi Ghuzzee at Heseia where they were shelled, causing many casualties.

Group portrait of men of the 7th Australian Light Horse Regiment, resting in the sand near Asluj before the charge at Beersheba

Group portrait of men of the 7th Australian Light Horse Regiment, resting in the sand near Asluj before the charge at Beersheba. [AWM P11464.047.003]

With the fall of Gaza on 7 November 1917, the Turkish position in southern Palestine collapsed. The 7th Light Horse Regiment also took part in the famous Battle of Beersheba, sustaining its “tradition for dash and gallantry” and then was involved in the follow up actions that lasted until early January 1918. After the fall of Jerusalem the 7th moved to the Jordan Valley and took parts in operations in this region. This included the taking of Jericho, the attack on Amman during 27 March – 2 April 1918 and the Es Salt Raid of 30 April – 4 May 1918.

Commendation

It was during the Es Salt Raid of 30 April – 4 May 1918 that Jack Dowsett received his commendation for devotion to duty.

Jack Dowsett's commendation record

Jack Dowsett’s commendation record

2nd Light Horse – A. & N.Z. Mounted – Desert Mounted

6th May 1918
7th A.L.H. Regiment

2nd Lieutenant Jack DOWSETT
Operations 29th April to 4th May 1918.

Devotion to duty, in that he was in charge of one of the troops detailed to carry out the assault on KABR SAID on the night of 29/30th April 1918. Owing to his careful reconnaissance of the position he was able to get his troop to within 300 yards of the enemy’s position and at the appointed time rushed the position together with Lieut. C.E.tanley’s troop, driving out the enemy and occupying the ridge.
On the night of the 3/4tth May 1918 the Regiment was ordered to leave the firing line at 2000 and take up a position forming a road head to cover the withdrawal of troops by No. 7 road from ES SALT. The Regiment moved up a track from the ES SALT-SHUNET NIMRIN Road and encountered a very difficult and bad patch of road about 30 feet long, which looked almost impossible to get the horses up, especially as the night was very dark.
Realising the urgency of getting everyone through, Lieut. Dowsett stayed at this place and by his personal exertions and disregard to the great danger to himself led every horse which gave trouble over the dangerous portion of the road. Some 15 to 20 horses slipped in their first attempt to get over and fell down a cliff of rock some 12 to 15 feet to the bottom. These Lieut. Dowsett got up again and got them safely over the bad portion of the road. In one case a horse fell three times. He was so exhausted at the end of three and a quarter hours that he was unable to walk up the road to rejoin his unit.

The 7th also helped defeat a joint Turkish-German attack launched on the Jordan bridgehead around Musallabeh on 14 July.

The next major British offensive was launched along the coast in September 1918, and the 7th took part in a subsidiary effort east of the Jordan. It was part of the force that captured Amman on 25 September, which proved to be its last major engagement of the war; Turkey surrendered on 30 October 1918.

Return to Australia

After the conclusion of hostilities, the 7th Light Horse Regiment was selected for to return to Australia. However, before they were able to depart one of the saddest events took place for the Australian Lighthorsemen: they had to farewell their best trusted steeds, the Australian Waler warhorses. All the Regiment’s horses had to have their health checked carefully with only the fittest horses being transferred to the Indian Cavalry while those in poor condition were all destroyed by the AIF Veterinary units.

On 13 March 1919 the 7th Light Horse Regiment was deployed as infantry to assist in suppressing a revolt during the Egyptian Uprising. This was to be their final assignment. After the revolt collapsed, the Regiment left Egypt on 28th June 1919 for the long voyage back to Australia.

Jack Dowsett was one of those who came home.

Dowsett’s War, Part 6 – Changi Prisoner

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden]

Three Australian prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [Photo by G. Aspinall]

“The place earned the title of Hellfire Pass, for it looked, and was, like a living image of hell itself.”
Jack Chalker, Burma Railway: Images of War, London, Mercer Books, 2007, 59

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

Douglas France Dowsett, a driver with the 22nd Infantry Brigade Australian Army Service Corps Supply (AASC) Section was held along with roughly 15,000 other servicemen of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, Changi. It was a prisoner of war camp holding some 50,000 Allied – predominantly British and Australian – soldiers captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. From 1943 the prison also included Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands from what is now Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The name Changi has become synonymous in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere with the horrific treatment suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the POW camps.

Extract from NX58454 D F Dowsett’s war service records. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

Doug’s army war records are notable in that the pages are bare of much detail, essentially just a few lines recording his status as “missing” and then POW. It’s as if the silence of his service record speaks loudly of the suffering in the prison camps, such a long way from home and long way from the protection of his own unit. What we now know as the history that occurred between the dates recorded on those cards haunts the unknown time in between.

Newspaper clipping from The Australian Women’s Weekly society pages, Saturday 29 June 1946 reporting the wedding of Doug Dowsett to Milicent Sutton in Randwick, New South Wales. The officiating minister was former army chaplain George Polain, who was a POW alongside Dowsett in Shimo Songkurai and would later go on to give evidence against the Japanese war crimes in the labour camps. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

The conditions experienced in the Changi camps by Australian soldiers have been memorialised in poetry, books and film by the number. The very name Changi immediately conjures emtions of dread amongst all who know anything of the horrors lived by the wretched souls sent to build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In his 1980 book One Man’s War, Stan Arneil quotes from his diaries: “If ever I see home again …I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beri beri, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last..?”

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China. Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It wound not only through gentle plains but also jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway system.

In order to complete the works in record time, more than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian. Over 12 000 Allied prisoners would die during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians.

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The required POW labour force was systematically transferred from the Changi barracks camps to various labour camps outside Singapore, including the Burma Railway and the Sandakan airfield. ‘D Force’, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. ‘F Force’ was 7,000 strong; there were 3,338 British and 3,662 Australians and the first train left Singapore on the 18 April, 1943.

Doug Dowsett was transferred to Changi with ‘H’ Force in May 1943. This group consisted of nearly 3300 men including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, ‘H’ Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.

The bulk of the workforce arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo Ni Thea, which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

What is now known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ is a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. It was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced impossibly fast work schedules to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell.

“Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.” – Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing 1980

Hellfire Pass was lost to the jungle in the years after the war when the railway was demolished. But it was rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now the site of Anzac Day ceremonies and the location of the Australian government’s Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a walking trail for visitors.

 

The Battle of Buna-Gona, Part 2: Allied Retribution

1942-12-28. Papua. silhouetted against the rising sun, an Australian tank moves through heavy foliage to attack the Japanese positions at Buna. (photograph by G. Silk)

1942-12-28. Papua. silhouetted against the rising sun, an Australian tank moves through heavy foliage to attack the Japanese positions at Buna. (photograph by G. Silk / AWM 013949)

“After Australian troops had fought the bitter, bloody fight that was the Kokoda trail, they drove the Japanese into the foul foxholes in the beach-heads at Gona, Buna and Sanananda. There, with support – for the first time – of American land forces, and under the increasing protection of the United States Fifth Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, they annihilated him.” – The Jap Was Thrashed (1943)

Biamu, Oro Bay, New Guinea. 1942-11-11. United States Troops of the 1st Battalion, 128th Regiment, 32nd United States Division landing at Biamu Village, about 17 miles from Buna, during the advance on the Japanese forces occupying the Buna-Gona-Sanananda areas. (AWM 069274)

Biamu, Oro Bay, New Guinea. 1942-11-11. United States Troops of the 1st Battalion, 128th Regiment, 32nd United States Division landing at Biamu Village, about 17 miles from Buna, during the advance on the Japanese forces occupying the Buna-Gona-Sanananda areas. (AWM 069274)

In November 1942 – as a part of Operation Cartwheel – the U.S. Fifth Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, all under the command of General George Kenney, began a sustained bombing campaign against the airfields and port of Rabaul. This cooperative Allied air power interdicted the Japanese capacity to reinforce and resupply the New Guinea beachheads from Rabaul, thus isolating the defensive positions on the island. However, leading into the battle of Buna-Gona in November 1942, Supreme Commander General MacArthur was operating under the dangerous assumption that Buna would be taken with relative ease – owing to the fact that Allied intelligence gathering efforts had severely underestimated both the number and combat effectiveness of the Japanese defenders. MacArthur’s chief of staff had dismissed the Japanese coastal fortifications as “hasty field entrenchments.” Not only was the initial reconnaissance lacking in important detailed knowledge of the battlefield, the Australian maps of the area were mostly sketches, with some so rough that they actually showed some rivers flowing uphill.1

The New Guinea coastal terrain around the coastal areas of Buna and Gona actually consisted of natural obstacles that were used by the Japanese to channel Allied attackers into overlapping, connected fields of fire. Tree trunks up to a foot in diameter cut into logs and interlaced with earth filling formed the top cover of innumerable strongposts, impervious to infantry weapons and able to withstand direct hits from 25-pounder artillery. These Japanese defensive positions at Buna-Gona would later be described as “one of the most impressive defensive networks seen in the entire war.”2 They consisted of hundreds of bunkers and machine gun emplacements which made excellent use of the formidable terrain, severely reducing the tactical alternatives for the attacking forces. All defensive positions were coordinated, in that forward positions were ‘mutually supporting’ and secondary positions were meant to confuse attackers. Structural defences were connected by a network of trenches with firing positions in between and bunkers intended to protect the defenders from artillery and air attack. Later, US Corps Commander Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger would call the Japanese strategic use of terrain “perfect” and “brilliant”.3

In those posts, the Japanese sat for weeks amongst piles of ammunition and rations, crouched 24 hours a day. Rarely did they attempt to adapt to changing conditions or to gain ground. It was clear that their orders were based on the realisation that their main strength now lay in maintaining perimeter defence. Relief, ammunition and stores were brought along the maze of communication trenches about a metre and a half deep. The Japanese soldier lived underground and fought from almost impenetrable strongposts.

The main Japanese position the battle of Buna-Gona was centred on the coast at Sanananda and Giruwa with defensive positions located on the coastal flanks at Gona to the west, and Buna to the east. Estimated actual strength of the Japanese forces deployed to Buna–Gona or operating to the west in the vicinity of the Kumusi and Membare Rivers as between 11,000 and 12,000. The position at Buna back to the Girua River was held by between 2,000 – 2,500 defenders and Gona was garrisoned by 800–900 defenders. Records also show that the Japanese forces in front of Sanananda numbered around 5,000 plus about 1,800 held the defences on the Sanananda track.4

The Battle of Buna-Gona began on 16 November 1942 with the Australian 25 Brigade pursuing the withdrawing Japanese forces across the Kumusi River, roughly 60 kilometres from the beachheads.  The Australian forces were met with unbending resistance. The unique combination of difficult terrain, lack of heavy weapons and artillery and consequent logistical problems rendered traditional battle tactics of manoeuvre and fire support impossible.  These limitations were magnified by the grit of the Japanese warriors fighting from carefully planned entrenched defensive positions. After the first two weeks of battle, and despite repeated offensives, the Allies had made little progress and were faced with mounting casualties. As time wore on, the conditions were became like a “tropical vignette of the trench warfare conditions of the earlier war.”5

Australian manned General Stuart M3 tanks bust Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, shoot Japanese fleeing from a tank-blasted Pillbox. Smoke At left is from the pillbox which the tank is attacking, at right is a destroyed empty pillbox. The soldier at back of tank, private E. R. Glover, was killed a few seconds after this picture was taken. Far right is private Davies. The Photograph was taken during the actual fighting. (AWM 014005)

Australian manned General Stuart M3 tanks bust Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, shoot Japanese fleeing from a tank-blasted Pillbox. Smoke At left is from the pillbox which the tank is attacking, at right is a destroyed empty pillbox. The soldier at back of tank, private E. R. Glover, was killed a few seconds after this picture was taken. Far right is private Davies. The Photograph was taken during the actual fighting. (AWM 014005)

Here on the north coast the Japanese were taking a severe beating from the air, as heavy and medium bombers of the US Fifth Air Force and Australian-manned Beaufighters maintained devastating strafing of the enemy’s supply lines and barge traffic. Gona Village, which had been bombed and strafed for days, fell to determined attack by the 21st Brigade on December 1st. It was only then after concentrating their remaining reinforcements that the 7th Division finally broke through the Japanese lines at Gona on the morning of 9 December. They were then harassed by Japanese forces landing at the Kumusi River and fighting continued on west of the Gona Creek are for some time. Against repeated counter-attacks the Americans maintained a road block on the Sanananda track until the night of December 13/14. Attacking from both flanks, US 32nd Infantry Division forces entered Buna village on 14 December and were joined by the Australian 18th Brigade and Stuart tanks of the 2/6th Armoured Regiment after a stalemate had developed on the eastern flank. They successfully broke through and with another attack on 18 December.

1942-12. Papua. Buna. Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment at Cape Endaiadere advance through mud and slush on Buna. (AWM 013971)

1942-12. Papua. Buna. Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment at Cape Endaiadere advance through mud and slush on Buna. (AWM 013971)

A deep comradeship of arms developed between the Americans and Australians who fought these battles, but it was to the United States Fifth Air Force that the Australians in New Guinea felt particularly indebted. Reciprocal admiration of the Americans for their for the battle-proved Australians – young men, but now experienced in tropical jungle warfare – was also strongly felt, as in the example of one group of American infantrymen, who were intrigued when they were out-paced on a jungle track by Major-General G. A. Vasey, 7th Division commander, fresh from the triumphs of the Owen-Stanley Ranges. “Who’s that guy,” one asked, and received the reply: “He’s the guy who own the war in these parts.”6

After witnessing the efforts of the 2/9 Battalion at Buna, a senior American staff officer would report to General Eichelberger:

“I have seen today something that I never dreamt I would see. I have seen infantry go on taking such casualties as I wouldn’t have believed  any infantry in the world could ever take and still go on. However long I live I never expect to see the like again.”

The Buna area as far as the Girua River was clear of Japanese forces by January 3rd 1943 and the Australian 7th Division continued to pressure the forward Japanese positions astride the Sanananda track without a decisive result. The 18th Brigade was then ordered to quickly advance on Cape Killerton and then Sanananda. the rate of the Allied advance quickly overtook the retreating Japanese Even though at this stage they had planned for an orderly evacuation of the area.  After evacuating roughly 1,200 injured by sea during 13–20 January, General Yamagata ordered a full evacuation.

The Australian 7th Division linked up with the US 32nd Division at Giruwa on 21 January, and the battle ended the next day.

In the book Our Jungle Road to Tokyo (1950), General Eichelberger wrote: “Buna was … bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair, and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it.” Fatalities, he concluded, “closely approach, percentage-wise, the heaviest losses in our Civil War battles.” He also commented, “I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights.”


1.  New Guinea – The tide is stemmed (1972) by John Vader
2. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
3. The Jap Was Thrashed, Director General of Public Relations (Australia) 1943
4. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
6. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Every Man Remembered

EveryManRemembered

The Royal British Legion, a welfare agency for all British Armed Forces, operates a memorial website titled Every Man Remembered which has the daunting mission of keeping alive the memory of every soldier that fell in the First World War, and inviting the public to register a virtual ‘poppy’ as a commemoration for every grave.

Reninghelst_DDOWSETT

Registering a commemoration for David Dowsett who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, during the Third Battle for Ypres on 8 August 1917 Age 36.

The information on casualties from the First World War has been supplied by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission which was established by Royal Charter in 1917 and maintains the graves and memorials of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth Service nations who died during both world wars at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.

“Disability, homelessness, bereaved and desperate families, poverty – these were typical issues in Britain after the First World War. Today, The Royal British Legion resolves similar issues – providing practical and immediate support to injured veterans and bereaved families, helping people into jobs, into homes and offering them hope for the future. The Legion is committed to helping those who serve with the British Armed Forces today as well as those who have served in the past, now and for as long as they need us, whether that is for a few weeks or for many years.”

Lest we forget.

 

The Battle of Buna-Gona, Part 1: The Empire Strikes

NEW GUINEA. ON ROAD TO BUNA AUSTRALIAN TROOPS CROSS A STREAM ON AN IMPROVISED BRIDGE.

“Our army has never encountered anything more grim than the campaigns which have been fought in the Jungles of New Guinea. No Australian troops have acquitted themselves more honourably than those men who stopped the Japanese advance at Milne Bay and a little later in the Owen Stanley Ranges… and I say that as one who has an intimate knowledge of our soldiers in two world wars.”1 – General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief, Australian Military Forces

The Battle of Buna-Gona fought by the Allied powers in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire in New Guinea from late 1942 to early 1943 was one of the major turning points in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Somewhat lesser known in the Australian public consciousness – often overshadowed by the tragic glory of Gallipoli in World War I and the miraculous bravery of Long Tan in the Vietnam War – this hard-fought battle is important in Australian military history for many reasons and would teach hard lessons in jungle warfare. The fanatical determination of hardened Japanese Imperial forces caught the Allies off-guard and would become typical of the bitterly contested, savage warfare the Japanese were known for during the remainder of the Pacific War. In fact, Allied losses in the battle were at a rate higher than that experienced at Guadalcanal.2

Papua_New_Guinea_map

Image via wikipedia.org

Before the Second World War, Australia had been given responsibility for the Territory of Papua in the south-east of the island by Britain in 1906 and during the First World War had seized the remaining north-eastern territories of German New Guinea, thus giving Australia control over all of the eastern half of the main island of New Guinea and the islands of New England and New Ireland. Port Moresby, the main city on New Guinea, lies on the shore of the Gulf of Papua on the main island’s Papuan Peninsula. Rabaul, on the island of New England, was known as Simpsonhafen during the German administration. Australia recieved full administrative control of these territories under a mandate from the League of Nations in 1919.

The fall of British Malaya and Singapore in February 1942 sent shockwaves through the Empire and startled Australia in particular, as suddenly there was not much that lay between the rapidly advancing Japanese war machine and the Australian mainland. For the first time, an invasion of our island nation was entirely plausible. In Singapore, nearly 15,000 Australian soldiers became prisoners of war along with the rest of the garrison of some 85,000 mostly British and Indian troops in the largest surrender and capture of British Imperial troops in history.

After the Japanese shocked the Allies by attacking Pearl Harbor – which would dramatically alter the course of the entire war – it was evident that the strategic harbour of Rabaul on the island of New Britain in New Guinea would be next as they advanced towards Australia. In late January 1942, Rabaul would fall to the Japanese after a campaign of heavy bombing (the Battle of Rabaul), and subsequently thousands of Japanese naval forces were landed and developed the township into a powerful base. The Japanese military then adopted as part of their Asia-Pacific strategy a plan to isolate Australia from the United States in March of 1942. The idea was to take Port Moresby in New Guinea and also the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.

However, Japanese defeats in the Battle of the Coral Sea at the hands of naval and air forces from the United States and Australia hampered the plans for a naval attack on Port Moresby, and it was abandoned entirely after the Battle of Midway. Then US President Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines to formulate a defense plan for the Pacific region with the Australian military. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, agreed to place his forces under the command of MacArthur, who became Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theatre. MacArthur established a headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria in March of 1942. Operation Cartwheel was the name given to the Allies’ South West Pacific strategy in June 1943, part of which included the isolation of Rabaul via air power.

An amphibious landing to capture Port Moresby, capital of the Australian Territory of Papua, by establishing beachheads at Buna and Gona and then crossing the Owen Stanley ranges,  marked stage one of the Japanese plan known as Operation MO. The Battle of Milne Bay or Operation RE, was fought from 25 August to 7 September 1942 began when a Japanese invasion force made up of special naval units attempted to capture the strategically important Milne Bay area. ADD This was the first notable Japanese land defeat and raised Allied morale across the Pacific Theatre.

NEW GUINEA. ON ROAD TO BUNA AUSTRALIAN TROOPS CROSS A STREAM ON AN IMPROVISED BRIDGE.

New Guinea. On the road to Buna Australian troops cross a stream on an improvised bridge. AWM 013756

By campaigning in New Guinea, Japanese forces had consigned themselves and their Australian and American counterparts to fighting in one of the most malarial regions in the world. In addition to malaria other vicious tropical diseases such as dengue fever, scrub typhus, tropical ulcers, dysentery and fungal infections were also constant problem. Allied supplies of quinine were unreliable and it was common for Australian soldiers to wear shorts and rolled sleeves in response to the oppressive heat. Insect repellent and mosquito nets and were in relative short supply, and the repellent was practically useless. 90 percent of Allied soldiers in Buna-Gona contracted malaria during the course of the battle and 75 percent of those cases were diagnosed with malaria. The ratio of men hospitalised through sickness to every Allied battle casualty was nearly 5 to 1. Many men fought on the front lines with fevers as high as 40 °C (103 °F).

By the time the battle commenced with their beach landings at Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, the Japanese army was already in control of much of the northern part of New Guinea. A Japanese detachment under the command of Major General Tomitarō Horii, began advancing through the formidably rugged Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Track. As of 16 September 1942, General Horii’s force had advanced as far as Ioribaiwa, just 30 kilometres from Port Moresby, and was “close enough to see the town’s lights”.

The Owen Stanley Ranges are criss-crossed by rivers that disappear into swamps and small creeks. The adjacent coastal strip goes from a few hundred metres at its widest to little more than centimetres separating the swamp from the sea and the few paths that went through the swamps were usually only a couple of metres wide and often narrower. The lower lying areas not already saturated were either dense jungle or acres of kunai grass. This dense grass could grow up to 2 metres (6.6 ft) and the leaves were broad and sharp-edged. Temperatures during the months of the battle are the hottest in the region and ranged from an average daily low of 22 °C (72 °F) to 31 °C (89 °F) but with a relative humidity of 82 percent, this would have been oppressive. In these hot and humid conditions, the kunai grasses trapped the heat at ground level and it was not uncommon for temperatures to reach 50 °C (122 °F).3

Meanwhile, the Allied forces in the Pacific had identified a Japanese airfield under construction at Guadalcanal. were embarked to capture the airfield. An amphibious landing was made on 7 August by 19,000 US Marines and thus began a battle of attrition that was strongly contested on land, at sea and in the air and would ultimately rage for 5 long months before the Japanese were finally evicted from Guadalcanal on 9 February 1943.

Japanese Lieutenant General Hyakutake determined he could not support both the deteriorating battles at Guadalcanal and the one in New Guinea, so on 23 September 1942 he ordered Horii to withdraw his troops on the Kokoda Track while Guadalcanal was contested. Commencing on 26 September 1942, the Japanese began withdrawal from their favored position near Port Moresby . They retreated back through the Owen Stanley Range with the Australian 7th Division in close pursuit. The US 32nd Infantry Division had been sent to New Guinea in September and was ordered to make a circling move against the Japanese eastern flank near Wairopi. The Japanese suffered heavily in the battle around Oivi–Gorari, from 4 to 11 November, and the orderly withdrawal that had been initiated quickly disintegrated into a rout.

The Australian 7th Division was now roughly 65 kilometres (40 miles) from Buna–Gona.


1. The Jap Was Thrashed, Director General of Public Relations (Australia) 1943
2. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
3. Battle of Buna–Gona Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dowsett’s War, Part 5 – New Guinea

“Festering swamp and sodden jungle, snakes, crocodiles, myriads of scorpions,
centipedes, ants, leeches, typhus bearing mites, malaria;
this stone age land of tropical diseases and appalling climate was
the setting for a campaign that would cost the Japanese 100,000 lives.
And it was the Japanese who chose to campaign there.”

From New Guinea – The Tide is Stemmed by John Vader.

AWM 014001

1943-01-02. Papua, Giropa Point. Australian manned M3 General Stuart tanks attacking Japanese pillboxes in the final assault on Buna. Men of D Company, 2/12th Battalion, fire on 25 Japanese defenders (not seen), using Bren Mk 1 machine guns and SMLE No. 1 Mk 3 rifles, who are fleeing from a wrecked pillbox 150 metres away. The pillbox was destroyed by the General Stuart tank also seen here. In the foreground in the heat of battle are Private J. Searle and Corporal G. G. Fletcher. This photograph was taken by noted war photographer George Silk during the actual fighting.

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

The New Guinea campaign of World War 2 was a series of engagements fought between the Japanese Army and the Pacific Allied forces consisting primarily of divisions of the AIF. It began after Japan invaded the Australian-controlled territories of New Guinea and Papua and also conquered western New Guinea, administered by the Netherlands and part of the long history of the Dutch colonial East Indies. It lasted from January 1942 until the end of the war in August 1945.

New Guinea was of strategic importance to Australia at the time, as it represented the last major landmass in the South Pacific region before the Australian mainland that had not yet been invaded and controlled by the Japanese. At this point in 1942, the Allies had the majority of their fighting resources committed to the numerous front throughout Europe and northern Africa, and with the recent attack on Pearl Harbor the United States 3rd fleet (later becoming the 5th) was busy defending their own bases in the Pacific.

This situation meant that in late 1941 and early 1942 the available resources for defending Allied interests in South East Asia and the South Pacific were relatively threadbare. That fact coupled with the slowing progress of the German war machine in Europe – Japan’s ally – meant that the time was right for rapid Japanese expansion through their region. One by one they had fallen to Japan – Manchuria, Burma, Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines, and Singapore. The sights were then set for New Guinea and strategic base of Port Moresby.

AWM 095167

Kiarivu, New Guinea, 8th November 1945 – a 75mm howitzer M1A1 field gun manned by a battery of the 2/1st in position on the emergency landing ground. They are supporting the 2/7 Infantry Battalion troops during their attack against Kiarivu Village.

The 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery first fought in New Guinea with the 7th Division in both infantry and artillery roles, during the Battle of Buna–Gona in 1942-43.  This battle was part of the New Guinea campaign fought by the Allies against the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.  It followed the conclusion of the Kokoda Track campaign and lasted from 16 November 1942 until 22 January 1943.

My grandfather, NX93909 Royston Percival Dowsett was field battery gunner with the 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. I believe the Australian War Memorial photograph 095167 shown left features him standing centre of shot. This photograph was taken at Kiarivu, New Guinea, on the 8th of November 1945. It shows a 75mm howitzer M1A1 field gun manned by a battery of the 2/1st in position on the emergency landing ground. They are supporting the 2/7 Infantry Battalion troops during their attack against Japanese positions at Kiarivu Village. The gun is being cleaned with a pull through after firing.

The 2/1st returned to New Guinea as part of the 6th Division in late 1944 for the Aitape – Wewak Campaign and subsequent ‘mopping up’ operations, fighting in Maprik, Tazaki and Shiburangu until late 1945.  The Aitape–Wewak campaign was one of the final campaigns of the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Between November 1944 and the end of the war in August 1945, the Australian 6th Division, with air and naval support, fought the Imperial Japanese 18th Army in northern New Guinea.

Roy Dowsett was hospitalised once with dengue and twice with malaria during his time in the fighting in New Guinea, and like many gunners suffered from tinnitus after the war. I have fragmentary memories of a tall, quietly loving gentleman who cared very much for his grandson after losing his beloved wife to cancer the same month I was born. He has been described as reserved but troubled by his experiences in the jungle campaigns of New Guinea which he never spoke of save briefly to his son-in-law, my father, not long before Roy died. He passed away in 1981 in the house he shared with my family and I.