Battle of Milne Bay

Milne Bay was selected to be developed as an Allied base in 1942 – the key component of which were its three airstrips. The facilities made it a key stepping stone for the Japanese in their push to capture Port Moresby, and on 25 August 1942, around 2000 marines landed to capture it.

The Japanese were disadvantaged from the beginning – the marines were landed 11 kilometres east of their intended landing spot – and their intelligence significantly underestimated the strength of the Allied garrison. The Japanese believed there were no more than a few hundred troops defending Milne Bay, when actually there were about 9000 Allied troops defending the airstrips, including two Australian brigades – the 7th and 18th. The Allies had an added advantage of having air support at hand with the 75 and 76 squadron’s RAAF based at Milne Bay, who were equipped with P-40 fighter bombers.

Met with their accustomed success, the Japanese advanced westward with two light tanks in support. They were slowed down but unable to be held back by the 61stBattalion who were the first to go into action. The 2/10th Battalion moved up on the night of 27th August but faulty dispositions and command failings meant it was brushed aside in a renewed Japanese thrust, and disintegrated in a confused withdrawal. The intensity of the Japanese thrust fell away when they reached the edge of the easternmost airstrip as they prepared for their attack on 28th August, with the landing of 800 reinforcements. They attacked the defences manned by the Australian 25thBattalion, 61st Battalion, and the United States 41st Engineer Regiment and 709th Anti-Aircraft Battery. The Japanese suffered heavy casualties from machine gun and artillery fire. They were also harassed constantly by P-40s through their entire operations in daylight hours.

Seizing the opportunity for a counter-attack at dawn on 31st August, the commander of Milne Force, Australian Major General Cyril Clowes ordered 2/12th Battalion to pursue the retreating Japanese. Despite outnumbering the enemy, Clowes was put in a difficult position throughout the entire battle with reports of Japanese to his flanks and rear. For this very reason, a single battalion was sent after the Japanese. The 2/12th Battalion supported by the 2/9th Battalion advanced steadily along the north shore of Milne Bay from 2nd September, despite the skilled and determined rearguard action that was characteristic of the Japanese.

Despite the push by the Japanese high command for reinforcement of the force at Milne Bay, its commander suggested withdrawing due to the increasing number of sick and exhausted troops. The Japanese were consequently evacuated at night from the landing areas at Waga Waga and Wandala. Only 1,318 of the 2,800 who landed at Milne Bay were re-embarked it’s estimated. Around 750 lay dead around Milne Bay with others killed attempting to escape to the Japanese bases at Buna and Gona. Allied deaths included 167 Australians and 14 Americans killed.

Milne Bay was the first land defeat of the Japanese. Before other suitable areas were identified from victories in New Guinea from September 1943, Milne Bay remained an important Allied staging base despite its high humidity and ravenous insects like mosquitoes.

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