Japanese defeated at Milne Bay

Milne Bay: Australian Troops plough through mud at
Milne Bay shortly after the unsuccessful Japanese invasion attempt. (AWM 013335)

On the 5th and 6th of September 1942 Australian troops were mopping up the last remnants of resistance from the Japanese invasion force that had attempted to push them out of their Milne Bay base on Papua New Guinea. The Japanese has seriously underestimated the forces opposing them.

It was the first defeat of Japanese land forces in the war. They had been beaten during encounters with the U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal but there the battle continued as more troops were landed. At Milne Bay they retired, defeated.

It had been a bloody battle, with most of the Japanese fighting to the death rather than surrender. As early as 2nd September the Japanese commander had recognised the position, radioing his commanders:

[w]e have reached the worst possible situation. We will together calmly defend our position to the death. We pray for absolute victory for the empire and for long-lasting fortune in battle for you all

The Australians had had to make determined attacks just to finish them off.

John French, killed as he successfully attacked three Japanese machine gun positions.

Late on the 4th September Corporal John French was killed in an action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:

At Milne Bay on the afternoon of 4 September 1942, a company of an Australian infantry battalion attacked the Japanese position east of the K.B. Mission where it encountered terrific rifle and machine-gun fire.

The advance of the section of which Corporal French was in command was held up a by fire from three enemy machine-gun posts, whereupon, Corporal French, ordering his section to take cover, advanced and silenced one of the posts with grenades.

He returned to his section for more grenades and again advanced and silenced the second post. Armed with a Thomson submachine-gun, he then attacked the third post, firing from the hip as he went forward. He was seen to be badly hit by the fire from this post, but he continued to advance. The enemy gun ceased to fire and his section pushed on to find that all members of the three enemy gun crews had been killed and that corporal French had died in front of the third gun pit.

By his cool courage and disregard of his own personal safety this non-commissioned officer saved the members of the section from heavy casualties and was responsible for the successful conclusion of the attack.

The fanaticism of the Japanese troops even in defeat was to set the tone for the future conduct of the campaign.

Lying across the [air]strip were dozens of dead Japs… As our officer crossed in the vanguard a Jap, apparently wounded, cried out for help. The officer walked over to aid him, and as he did the Jap sprang to life and hurled a grenade which wounded him in the face. From then on the only good Jap was a dead one, and although they tried the same trick again and again throughout the campaign, they were dispatched before they had time to use their grenade.

Our policy was to watch any apparent dead, shoot at the slightest sign of life and stab with bayonet even the ones who appeared to be rotten. It was all out from then on, neither side showing any quarter and no prisoners were taken.

Sergeant Arthur Traill, 2/12th Infantry Battalion, Australian Army

The battle continued in Papua New Guinea but it had proved impossible for the Japanese to find an alternative to the inland battle across the . But it was an important turning point in proving that the Japanese could be defeated.

We were helped, too, by a very cheering piece of news that now reached us, and of which, as a morale raiser, I made great use. Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was the Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember

Field Marshal William Slim: Defeat Into Victory

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