The Battle for Brigade Hill, fought along the Kokoda Trail, was an unmitigated calamity for Australia’s Maroubra Force. The battle was fought over three days in September 1942 as besieged Australians desperately fought to hold the advancing Japanese as far north of Port Moresby as possible.
Following a valiant defence of Isurava Village in late August, the Australians withdrew south, relentlessly pursued by the Japanese. The Japanese Nankai Shitai (South Seas Force) under the command of Major General Horii, were eager to inflict a devastating defeat on the Australians. Isurava had hurt Maroubra Force, but it was not broken.
Brigade Hill is an impressive mountain ridge roughly halfway along the Kokoda Trail. Mission Ridge extends from its north face like a nose. The eastern face is very steep whilst the western face is only slightly less so as it drops down to the Fagume River. It was here that Brigadier Arnold Potts, Commander of Maroubra Force, was ordered to stand and fight the advancing Japanese.
At his disposal were the wearied men of 2/14th and 2/16th Infantry Battalions. Although depleted in number, some hope of success was generated as the Brigade was strengthened with their final fresh battalion, the 2/27th. Potts, concerned that the 2/14th and 2/16th could not withstand another frontal assault after their experiences at Isurava, placed the 2/27th at the forefront of his defences on Mission Ridge. He then strung his other units, including his headquarters in a line back along the trail.
Heavy fire from Japanese artillery signalled the commencement of the battle as the 2/27th was assaulted head-on up Mission Ridge by the Japanese 3/144th Battalion (I.e. 3rd Battalion, 144th Regiment).
While this occurred, the Japanese 2/144th Battalion, led by a Papuan guide, moved along the Fagume River before scaling the precipitous western slope of Brigade Hill throughout the night. As they reached the summit in the first moments of dawn, they lodged themselves in between two Australian positions, taking them by surprise. The Australians in the forward elements were cut off.
Realising the danger of the situation, Brigadier Potts ordered desperate counter-attacks to expel the Japanese. Despite the heroic efforts of the Australians to drive the Japanese out, their charges were futile and many Australians were killed.
The situation was hopeless so Potts ordered a withdrawal. With his forward troops cauterised from the main body further back along the ridgeline, the retreat was disorderly and Maroubra Force faced its darkest moment. The 2/27th Battalion was lost as a fighting force after their first battle in the campaign, and endured three weeks of suffering as the scattered remnants slowly ploughed through the jungle in an attempt to re-join their comrades in retreat. The Japanese flanking attack had produced a stunning victory.
A week later, at the next battle at Ioribaiwa, less than half the Australians who had fought at Brigade Hill were able to take part. However, Ioribaiwa marked the extent of the Japanese advance.
From secure positions occupied on Imita Ridge, the Australians were soon able to re-group and launch their long awaited counter-attack. The bravery of their countrymen who fought at Brigade Hill helped to inspire them as they pushed forward in late September and October to recapture Kokoda and drive the Japanese from Papua.
Nick Anderson recently trekked the Kokoda Trail with the ‘I’m an Australian Soldier’ Scholarship recipients and spent ANZAC Day 2012 in location.
Australian Army History Unit