Milne Bay - Papua New Guinea

The Battle of Milne Bay is one of Australia’s most overshadowed battles. Kokoda deserves its accolades, but so too does its sister battle.

Battle of Milne Bay
Battle of Milne Bay
The Battle of Milne Bay

The Battle of Milne Bay is one of the Australian Army’s most overshadowed battles. The public's attention is mostly drawn to the Kokoda campaign which was fought at the same time. Kokoda rightly deserves its accolades, but so too does its sister battle at Milne Bay, for the bitter fighting over this isolated harbour played an equally important role in contributing to the shifting Allied fortunes in the Pacific War.

Milne Bay cuts into the eastern tip of the island of New Guinea. Its remoteness, swampish landscape and the prevalence of tropical disease deterred any significant development prior to the Second Word War. Despite these disadvantages, Milne Bay is situated between a number of locations that were at the forefront of the war in the South-West Pacific in mid-1942, namely Port Moresby, Rabaul, Guadalcanal and Buna-Gona. The strategic value offered by Milne Bay’s location prompted General Douglas MacArthur to order the secret construction of an Allied base with airfields to protect the maritime approach to Port Moresby. From this base, Allied aircraft could attack the large Japanese base at Rabaul without flying the dangerous journey over the Owen Stanley mountain range.

The base at Milne Bay was quickly established and expanded. Australian and American troops assisted by Papuan labourers worked tirelessly to construct facilities to support a garrison of nearly 10,000 men. Crucially, the Allies sought to conceal the base’s development and size for as long as possible. Their endeavour was successful; for once the Japanese discovered and despatched a task force to seize the base, they did so based on a faulty estimate that the garrison’s strength was less than one-tenth of its actual size.

The battle began on the night of 25/26 August when the Imperial Japanese Navy landed approximately 1,200 men at Wahahuba Bay on Milne Bay’s north shore. Condemning the Japanese chance of success was a critical error at the outset: they landed at the wrong beach, more than twenty kilometres from their objective. This was a grievous error to make with land movement at Milne Bay already agonisingly slow, the constant rain turning the few tracks that existed into sludge.

The Battle of Milne Bay Book cover
The Battle of Milne Bay Book cover
The Battle of Milne Bay Book cover

After three days of fighting the Japanese had pushed the Australians back to edge of their base at Gili Gili. But there was little cause for celebration. The Japanese were tired and hungry. The most potent weapons they brought to Milne Bay were two light tanks that were abandoned after bogging in the mud. Worst of all, most of their supplies were destroyed on the first morning of the battle by the two RAAF Fighter Squadrons based at Milne Bay. Indeed the RAAF’s Kittyhawk fighters were a constant menace to the Japanese, prowling the sky and forcing them to lay hidden in the jungle which restricted their movement during daylight hours.

On the night of 30/31 August, buoyed by the arrival of 800 reinforcements, the Japanese launched an all-out assault on the Allies’ base. The attack was an utter disaster. Scores of Japanese were killed by the lethal array of firepower the Allies had placed along their base perimeter. Not a single Japanese marine breached the Allies’ defensive line.

The following week saw Australian infantry push the Japanese back along the north shore of Milne Bay beyond their original landing point. The remnants of the Japanese task force were evacuated on the nights of 4 and 5 September. The invasion was thwarted and Milne Bay was secure.

The Allied victory at Milne Bay – one of the first on land in the Pacific War – was a confidence injection to Allied armies across the world. By securing Milne Bay, the Allies kept an important base that serviced the Allied war effort for the duration of the war. In addition, the Allies’ continued occupation of Milne Bay made life more difficult for the Japanese fighting on the Kokoda Trail, because they now knew they could not expect supply from the sea even if they made it all the way to Port Moresby.

Major reasons for the Allied victory included the advantages they enjoyed in troop numbers and weaponry and the close air support provided by the two RAAF fighter Squadrons.

For their part, the Japanese were not used to defeat and struggled to make sense out of the disaster that had befallen them. The Japanese Commanders blamed their own troops and denigrated their fighting prowess, willpower and age. However, the larger failings were of their own making: deficiencies in battle planning, a woeful inadequacy of detailed intelligence and the lack of air support provided to the invasion force.

These failings can be attributed to the underlying problem the Japanese faced in the South Pacific. By committing to simultaneous military operations at Milne Bay, the Kokoda Trail and Guadalcanal, the Japanese grossly overextended themselves, and lacked the manpower and resources to carry any of those three operations to a successful conclusion.

Source: Nicholas Anderson (Australian Army History Unit – Author of recently released book, The Battle of Milne Bay).