To Kokoda - discussion with the author

To Kokoda - discussion with the author

Talking with Nicholas Anderson author of To Kokoda, number 14 in the Australian Army Campaign Series.

Who is your book written for? 

Nicholas Anderson
Nicholas Anderson

The book is aimed at a wide audience designed as an introduction to the Kokoda campaign. It deliberately takes a middle of the road approach. It does not adopt the overly technical approach of an academic book, nor the flippant colloquial style adopted by some journalists when they approach the writing of history. The book is accessible for everyone, is written in a narrative style, and does not require pre-existing knowledge or any great understanding of the military. 

What made you want to write this book? 

In 2012 I was tasked with producing a study guide on the Kokoda campaign for the three winners of the ‘I’m an Australian Soldier Scholarship’ In putting that together, I found that there was a large amount of information available on the campaign, but in my opinion, it hadn’t been drawn together into a format that was as good as it could be. The existing literature was either overly technical or too casual. It seemed there was an opportunity to create a book that took the middle road. So that was my original goal. I asked myself, ‘If I was going to walk the Kokoda Trail for the first time and had no idea about what had happened there, what would I want in a book on the campaign?’ 

Can you please summarise the essence of your book in two or three lines? 

The essence of the book is the courage, adaptability and resolve displayed by Australian soldiers in the face of tremendous adversity. They had to contend with dual perils: a merciless enemy that was experienced in jungle warfare and accustomed to victory, and an intimidating physical environment, the likes of which they had not previously encountered. 

How did you collate all this information? 

I made the research of primary records held by the Australian War Memorial my first priority. Many of the relevant war diaries are digitised which made life easier, but for those that were not, trips to the Research Centre were necessary. Obtaining original source material allows an historian to read contemporary documents without taking on the arguments and ideas of subsequent writers. The librarian at the Royal Military College Duntroon was a huge help, providing me with an extensive bibliography of basically every word ever published on the Kokoda Trail: this included books, articles, and documentaries. I also spent a large amount of time visiting the National Archives to look at service records that had not previously been examined, and liaising with museums within the Australian Army History Unit’s network to access relevant material held in their collections. The Australians at War Film Archive was a great source of veterans’ recollections. I read thousands of pages of transcripts of interviews with Kokoda veterans, which were valuable for obtaining quotes and anecdotes to colour the narrative, acknowledging the obvious limitations caused by the passage of time. Patching all these sources together enabled me to clothe the key events with human stories and experiences. 

What do you see as the major themes of the book? 

Leadership is one of the key themes. The atmosphere in the headquarters of the senior Allied command was toxic. This was caused in part by the rampant competition and ambition of the Allied Generals, and in part by the pressure caused by the succession of Japanese victories during the first phase of the Kokoda campaign. How different Generals coped with that intense pressure is a key theme of the book. However leadership is not just a theme explored at the senior levels. One of the important distinctions of jungle warfare in comparison to fighting in other environments is the necessity for stronger leadership among even the lower ranks because of the effect the environment has on the conduct of operations. The Kokoda campaign required commanders to be close to their forward companies because line of sight difficulties and communication limitations hampered their ability to control a battle when too far away. Junior officers and NCOs had to make tactical decisions on the spot, and even individual rifleman had to act on initiative to a degree because it was often impossible to know what was occurring in the next section, let alone elsewhere in other platoons or companies. 

The other major theme of the book is adaptation. That is, how the Australian soldiers adjusted to conditions they were unfamiliar with, and how they managed to execute operations with insufficient supplies. Logistics was the most important factor in the Kokoda campaign. At no point of time on the Kokoda Trail did Australian soldiers feel as though they were receiving adequate supplies. They were literally living off bully beef and biscuits and were ordered to conserve their ammunition because bringing supplies forward was so difficult. Therefore, the ability of soldiers to adapt to their circumstance is a crucial theme examined in the book. 

Which part of the book was the hardest to write? 

The hardest section of the book to write were the chapters relating to the Battle of Eora Creek. It was a complex battle fought in dreadful conditions. Understanding what exactly occurred is made difficult by the complicated terrain of the battle site. The fact that a major section of the battle site sat undisturbed for nearly 70 years after the campaign finished is testament to the wild country it was fought in. During the battle it was very difficult for the Australian commanders to communicate with one another; and because many units and sub-units were being split up and sent off into the jungle to complete independent tasks, keeping track of everyone’s location was a nightmare. The chaotic nature of the battle is replicated in the records and post-war accounts. There are glaring contradictions in the records and when it comes to the accounts of those who participated, there are disparities in the recollections and different versions of events from the senior officers involved. The different agendas of the people involved needs to be borne in mind when trying to ascertain the correct version of events. 

In the book, you criticise Brigadier John Lloyd’s tactical handling of the Battle of Eora Creek. Is that fair given what you’ve said about the difficulty in determining exactly what occurred during that battle? 

This is something I pondered at length. I have a lot of admiration for Lloyd. He was a highly respected Australian officer with vast experience stretching back to not only the First World War, but also service in between the Wold Wars in the Afghan War with the British Army. I read his personal papers at the Australian War Memorial. As a man and as a soldier, it’s clear from his personal papers that he was respected by his colleagues on both sides of the ‘Fighting Generals’ divide. However, I felt I would be being disingenuous if I didn’t criticise the apparent failings in the tactics he employed at Eora Creek. Crossing the two bridges at Eora Creek while they were heavily defended and under Japanese observation was unnecessary. Most of the battles that preceded Eora Creek were won once either of the two sides gained the high ground. Eora Creek was no different, and was eventually won once the Australians gained the high ground on Eora Ridge above the Japanese. But this only occurred after a week of hard fighting in close contact with the Japanese. The logical approach to gaining the necessary altitude at Eora Creek would have been for Lloyd to swing his forces to the high ground away from the bridges, rather than try to cross them, which funnelled the Australians into a confined killing zone. 

The two bridges were crossed, and that would appear to vindicate Lloyd’s decision, but they were crossed by sheer luck and the result could have been more disastrous than it was. The alternative plan was suggested to Lloyd ad nauseum by his battalion commanders, but he turned their suggestions down. Therefore, we turn to why Lloyd rejected the alternative. The simple answer is that it would have taken more time. Lloyd was under enormous pressure from his chain of command to advance quickly and gain results. This unyielding pressure from Generals MacArthur and Blamey (transmitted through Major General Allen) appears to have influenced Lloyd’s decision-making, and therefore some of the blame for what occurred at Eora Creek needs to be apportioned to those Generals who created the panicked and stressful climate on the ground. 

Who was the most interesting character you came across while writing the book? 

I can narrow this down to two Privates, George Maidment and Frank Richardson, both very interesting fellows. 

In the case of Maidment, you have an enigmatic character who won the DCM (the second medal down from a VC) for an incredible act of bravery during the Battle of Isurava. But Maidment was not his real name, it was Alexander Thornton. Thornton enlisted in the Army under the assumed name of Maidment to escape punishment for crimes committed under his real name of Thornton. In the Army, Maidment was unruly and often in trouble, and yet during the Battle of Isurava, after witnessing his corporal shot dead, he seized the initiative and single-handedly took the fight to the Japanese, and was badly wounded in the process. Maidment’s Company Commander offered him medical assistance which was ‘refused with abuse’ but later nominated Maidment for a Victoria Cross. A DCM was awarded instead, in part because Maidment was nowhere to be found. In an incident reminiscent of his mysterious life, he disappeared off a stretcher while being carried back towards Port Moresby during the fighting withdrawal and nobody knows whatever happened to him. 

Frank Richardson was also a bit of a larrikin. His service record contains charges for offences including drunkenness, failure to pay for food and drinks, swearing at a superior officer, and behaviour unbecoming a member of the AIF. And yet reading the accounts of people who knew him, he was a popular man who was probably guilty of having a good time rather than anything sinister. At the Battle of Eora Creek, Richardson was part of small group of soldiers pinned down by withering Japanese fire. A volunteer was needed to brave the fire to return to the Commanding Officer to seek assistance. Richardson volunteered and sprang to his feet to run to get help. Within several steps he was shot dead. His example of selflessness inspired the soldiers who knew him, and as I say in the book, these two prove that indiscipline and valorous deeds are not mutually exclusive. 

What was the most quirky fact you came across while writing the book? 

One particularly interesting point I came across while writing the book was the small group of men who took part in the both the Kokoda and Gallipoli campaigns. These are the two most well-known campaigns in Australian military history. So it is amazing that there were individuals who were at both given the 27 years that separates them. My interest in this was piqued by a friend at the Australian War Memorial who alerted me to a couple of the individuals who are well known, such as the consummate soldier Jim Cowey of the 39th Battalion, or Sergeant Arthur Carson, a stretcher bearer of the 2/3rd Battalion who had started life in a Norwegian orphanage before moving to Australia, anglicising his name, and then being decorated in both wars for bravery. While writing the book, I continued to identify further men who were at both - such as Brigadiers Lloyd and Potts - until the number of names on the list stood at nine. The list is not exhaustive. It’s possible there may have been others, as rare as they are. Interestingly, Brigadier Potts said that the volume of fire he experienced at the Battle of Brigade Hill on the Kokoda Trail was heavier than anything he experienced at Gallipoli. 

What about any interesting anecdotes relating to the Kokoda Campaign that you couldn’t fit within the book? 

There were many fascinating individual stories of bravery and courage I came across that I would have loved to have fitted within the book, but couldn’t because of the limited number of words I had to play with. 

The main one that sticks in my mind is the story of John Metson. A Corporal with the 2/14th Battalion, Metson had his ankle shattered by a bullet during the Battle of Isurava. Shortly after, the Australian positions were over-run and the Japanese began pursuing the Australians during their famous fighting withdrawal. Metson was part of a group of soldiers that were cut off from the main body of the Australians, and were forced to press through the jungle avoiding the Japanese in the hope of reaching safety. Metson’s injury meant he could not walk, but he was loathe to rely on a stretcher, as he knew this would burden his mates who were already exhausted. Instead he bandaged his hands and knees and said he would crawl. He did for this for close to three weeks as the desperate Australians ploughed through the jungle in the hope of reaching safety. Eventually the group reached the village of Sangai, where they sought shelter under the protection of several native huts. In a sad postscript, as the fittest members of the party pushed on to find help, Metson remained at Sangai with the other wounded and sick Australians. Shortly after, this group in Sangai was discovered by the Japanese, who executed them all. Metson’s company commander was determined to ensure that his heroism wasn’t forgotten, and recommended him for an MBE which was awarded. The incredible courage shown by Metson then served as an inspirational story for the Australian Army. 

It appears that throughout the duration of the Kokoda campaign, there was a lot of in-fighting between the Allied Generals? 

It really struck me while writing the book how much of a role the ambition of the Allied Generals had on the conduct of the war in the South-West Pacific. Reading the diaries, personal papers and letters of these men really gives an interesting insight into their character, mentality and motivations. So on the one hand you have the Australian Government making public declarations about the grave peril posed to the country by the Japanese, and yet in the background you have senior Australian Generals jockeying for positions and promotions. If the degree of the threat posed by the Japanese was so severe, then in my opinion the self-interest of these generals reflects very poorly on them. Generals MacArthur, Blamey and Herring are usually seen as the worst offenders, however even Generals such as Allen and Vasey – who I’m generally sympathetic towards – are guilty of the same thing. Some of the comments that Vasey writes home in letters to his wife are unbecoming for a senior Australian general.  

To quote Professor David Horner: ‘The arguments between the generals might seem of little consequence. But the opposite is the case. It was errors by men like MacArthur and Blamey which led to the near disaster in New Guinea, and it was the men in the front line who paid the heaviest price.’ A specific example of this is evident from the Battle of Eora Creek. MacArthur was worried he would lose his job as Commander-in-Chief South-West Pacific Area, which would damage his aspirations of become President of the United States. As a consequence, he put pressure on Blamey to achieve a quick victory in Papua. Blamey in turn put pressure on Allen who then put pressure on Brigadier Lloyd. So under immense time pressures, Lloyd tried to force the issue at Eora Creek by storming two heavily defended creek crossings, when the more logical (but time consuming and arguably ‘safer’) option was to cross Eora Creek upstream to gain the high ground and avoid an opposed water crossing. Crossing the defended bridges at Eora Creek caused many casualties that could have been avoided if personal ambition at the top of the Allied hierarchy wasn’t driving an unnecessary desire for swift victories. 

You are critical in the book of media identities whose own Kokoda books you suggest have made a negligible contribution to the study and understanding the Kokoda campaign. Would you care to elaborate? 

Most readers will only ever read one book per historical event. If they’re only reading one of these particular books, their views are being coloured by jingoistic embellishments and they’re gaining a false impression of what actually happened. That doesn’t bode well for an educated public with an accurate grasp of history, which is able to learn from the mistakes of the past. 

What do you hope that readers take away from reading this book? 

I would hope readers would take away an understanding of the Kokoda campaign, why it was fought, and how difficult it was to fight. 

Hopefully they will understand that the Japanese advanced across the Kokoda Trail to capture Port Moresby and thereby isolate Australia from the US. It was not fought to protect Australia from invasion, but that fact doesn’t diminish the outstanding fortitude displayed by the Australian troops, and the shocking conditions they had to endure. The Kokoda Trail’s overall strategic importance in the Pacific War doesn’t need to be exaggerated to increase the honour the Australian Army earned through its performance in this campaign. 

So you say the Japanese did not plan to invade Australia? 

The short answer is no. By the time the Kokoda campaign began, any realistic plans the Japanese had for invading Australia had been dismissed. The reality was that the Imperial Japanese Army was heavily committed to their war in China and could not spare the manpower to either launch an invasion or to garrison the Australian continent in the event that an invasion was successful. The Japanese aim was to capture Port Moresby so that Australia could be isolated from the United States. In addition, holding Port Moresby would allow the Japanese to harass the airfields in northern Australia. 

That’s not to say that if Port Moresby had been easily captured, and if things had of played out differently on Guadalcanal (in the Japanese favour), that they wouldn’t have reconsidered whether an invasion of Australia was feasible. It’s certainly a possibility. 

It’s also important to mention two other points. First, at the time of the Kokoda campaign, New Guinea was administered by Australia, so in a sense, Australian territory had already been invaded. And second, many of the Australians fighting on the Kokoda Trail felt they were fighting to protect Australia from invasion. The Australian Government and senior Army officers did not disavow the soldiers on the ground of this belief, because men fighting in defence of their homeland will fight with far greater determination. 

Why would people enjoy reading your book? 

The story of the Kokoda campaign is packed with drama. It involves an under-prepared and ill-equipped Australian Army sent to confront the Japanese Army which at the time was the finest jungle fighting force in the world. After being pursued across the Owen Stanley Ranges and on the brink of their objective, the Japanese attack ran out of steam. The Australians then pushed the Japanese back across the mountains in a bloody and protracted counter-attack. While the front-line troops were engaged in a bitter fight for survival, a power struggle erupted amongst the Allied Generals resulting in a series of sackings. All of this lends itself to a fascinating narrative that makes for a gripping read – and it’s all a true story.