Royston Dowsett

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

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.

Dowsett’s War, Part 4 – Malaya & Singapore

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

While researching the Dowsett family military history I began to notice that sometimes, simple bits of information can suddenly increase in significance once they are put in context.  Particularly, dates and times can hold valuable clues when linked with other key facts.

For example, Douglas Dowsett enlisted in the AIF in New South Wales on the 22nd of July, 1940 – the early stages of the Second World War.  He served as a driver in the 1st Company, Australian Army Service Corps with the 27th Infantry Brigade, which was part of the Australian 8th Division, tasked with defending Singapore in February 1942.

Singapore, Malaya. 15 August 1941. Troops after they have disembarked at Singapore Harbour. Marching centre front is possibly NX51557 Private Aubrey Thomas Stiff, Headquarters, 8th Division.

Australian troop disembarkation at Singapore Harbour, Malaya, 15 August 1941.  AWM 009249/28

The 8th Division consisted of the 22nd and 27th Brigades posted to Malaya in 1941 to assist in the defense of Allied interests there after the rapid capitulation of Thailand as the Japanese advanced through south east Asia towards Singapore and then on to the oil-rich areas of Borneo and Java.  After the loss of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales near Kuantan on December 10 1941, the Japanese faced little resistance in launching amphibious assaults on the coast of Malaya.

The Australian brigades went into action first at Gemas and Muar near Kuala Lumpur.  By the 31st of January the Allied forces had fought a rearguard action back through the Malayan peninsula, across the Johor-Singapore Causeway and back into Singapore.  To delay the Japanese advance, Allied engineers blew a 20 metre hole in the Causeway.

From the 8th to the 13th of February elements of the 22nd and 27th Brigades, many of whom had not seen action beforehand, fought a losing battle against the Japanese as they first assaulted Singapore Island via Kranji in the north and progressively pushed to within 5 miles of Singapore’s urban centre.  By the 15th Singapore had fallen, with the Allied forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival capitulating to the Japanese in the largest surrender of British forces in history.  At this point nearly 15,000 Australians soldiers became prisoners of war at Singapore, representing the majority of all Australian prisoners of the Japanese in World War II.  While only comprising even 13 percent of the Allied forces, the 8th Division suffered 73 percent of Allied deaths in the Malaya-Singapore campaign.  During the next three years until the end of the war, many would die in the bitterly inhuman conditions of the Japanese prisoner of war camps and over 2,400 Australian prisoners would die in the Sandakan Death Marches.

According to Doug Dowsett’s service records, he was listed as ‘missing’ in Malaya on 1st April 1942.  This indicates that he probably became separated from his unit around the time of the Singaporean surrender and capture and was then transferred to the notorious Japanese prison camp at Changi.  Doug’s record was subsequently stamped ‘PRISONER OF WAR’ and would not be updated until after the Japanese themselves surrendered.  He was recovered from the Japanese at Changi POW camp on the 8th September 1945 – almost three and a half years later.

Doug’s brother Roy, 8 years his senior, also enlisted to serve in the Second World War.  His enlistment is interesting for two reasons: one, he signed up at the age of 34 when most Australian soldiers were in their twenties; and two, he enlisted at Martin Place in Sydney on the 30th March 1942 – one day before his younger brother went missing over 6,000 kilometres away in Singapore.