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World War II: Battle of Milne Bay

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World War II: Battle of Milne Bay

Australian soldiers during the Battle of Milne Bay, 1942

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Milne Bay - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Milne Bay was fought August 25 to September 7, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

  • Major General Cyril Clowes
  • approx. 9,000 men

    Japanese

  • Vice Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara
  • Commander Shojiro Hayashi
  • Commander Minoru Yano
  • 2,300 men

  • Battle of Milne Bay - Background:

    Having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the Japanese began seeking an alternative approach to capturing Port Moresby, New Guinea. Aware that the enemy was still interested in taking the town, Allied planners began efforts to a construct a base at Milne Bay at the eastern tip of New Guinea in June. As work progressed on three airfields at Milne Bay, the Japanese landed at Buna in late July. Operating from Buna on the north coast, they advanced south over the rough terrain of the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby.

    Meeting heavy resistance from Allied forces in the jungles and mountains along the trail, Japanese leaders sought to occupy Milne Bay and use its airfields to support their efforts to the west. In preparation for the attack, Japanese aircraft began hitting Allied positions in the area on August 4. They were met over Milne Bay by Nos. 75 and 76 Squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force, flying P-40 Kittyhawks, which were operating from No. 1 Strip. These fighters were supported by No. 6 Squadron's Lockheed Hudson light bombers.

    Battle of Milne Bay - Allied Defenses:

    Since the initial Allied landings in the area, Milne Bay's garrison had grown rapidly. Overseen by Major General Cyril Clowes, the Allied force was centered on the Australian 7th and 18th Brigades. While the former was a reserve force, the latter brigade was an experienced infantry formation. These two units were augmented by elements of the 14th Brigade, two anti-aircraft units, the 9th Battery of 2/5th Field Regiment, and a detachment from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Though Clowes' force numbered nearly 9,000 men, only around 4,500 were infantry.

    Battle of Milne Bay - The Japanese Plan:

    For the assault on Milne Bay, the Japanese intended to dispatch contingents of Special Naval Landing Forces (SNLF) from Rabaul to strike directly at the Allied base. These would be supported by a second column of SNLF which would move down the coast from Buna to Taupota before crossing the Stirling Range to attack the Allied position from the rear. Departing on August 24, the main invasion force was escorted by two light cruisers, three destroyers, and two submarine chasers commanded by Rear Admiral Mitsaharu Matsuyama. Approximately 1,500 men of the 5th Kure and 5th Sasebo SNLF were embarked on two transports.

    Battle of Milne Bay - The Japanese Land:

    On August 25, a RAAF Hudson spotted the main Japanese force in the Trobriand Islands. Responding to the threat, a force of P-40s and Hudsons were ordered to attack the Japanese ships. Striking the invasion fleet near Rabi Island, the aircraft inflicted limited damage. Allied efforts to the north yielded better results when the Japanese force from Buna had their landing barges destroyed stranding it on Goodenough Island. Due to the strength of Allied air forces in the Milne Bay area, the Japanese elected to land at Ahioma rather than further west at Rabi as originally intended (Map).

    Coming ashore, SNLF forces were led by Commander Shojiro Hayashi and possessed two Type 95 light tanks. Shortly after landing, the Japanese encountered D Company/61st Battalion (7th Brigade) as it attempted to pull back to K.B. Mission to the west. Following a brief firefight, the Australians continued their withdrawal. Around dawn on August 26, the Japanese began attacking the 61st Battalion's lines near the mission. These efforts were repulsed and Hayashi pulled back towards Ahioma. That afternoon, RAAF aircraft from Milne Bay as well as bombers from the US 5th Air Force struck the Japanese base area.

    Battle of Milne Bay - The Japanese Advance:

    These attacks sunk a transport, destroyed a significant amount of Japanese supplies, and eliminated many of Hayashi's landing barges which prevented their future use in the campaign. Despite these losses, Hayashi was able to land his remaining men raising his force to around 1,150. Advancing that evening, the Japanese commander was forced to begin frontal assaults on the Australian position as he lacked the landing barges to conduct a flanking operation. Though they mounted a tenacious defense, the 61st Battalion was compelled to fall back behind the Gama River.

    Seeking to regain the initiative, Clowes pushed forward the 2/10th Battalion (18th Brigade) during the day on August 27. Encountering Japanese tanks, they took heavy losses in the vicinity of K.B. Mission before being driven back. Attacking that night, Japanese forces pushed the Australians to the edge of Strip No. 3 which was still under construction. Having held the enemy during the nighttime hours of August 28, the Allied troops began strengthening their defenses near Strip No. 3. Pausing their operations, the Japanese were reinforced on August 29 by around 800 men led by Commander Minoru Yano.

    Battle of Milne Bay - The Tide Turns:

    Taking command from Hayashi, Yano began preparing for a massive assault on the Allied position on August 31. Surging forward at 3:00 AM, the Japanese struck the Australian lines near the airfield. During the course of the attack, three banzai charges were turned back by the 61st Battalion and 25th Battalion (7th Brigade) as well as by accurate artillery fire. Unable to break through and with tank operations limited by muddy conditions, the Japanese began to fall back. Sensing an opportunity, Clowes ordered the 2/12th Battalion (18th Brigade) to counterattack at 9:00 AM. Pressing forward, it harried the Japanese retreat forcing Yano to fight several rearguard actions.

    Though hampered by reports of enemy formations on his flanks and rear, Clowes sought to continue the pursuit of the enemy and on September 3 ordered the 2/9th Battalion (18th Brigade) to join the 2/12th. Together, the two battalions drove the Japanese back along the north shore of Milne Bay. Though some in the Japanese high command called for sending reinforcements, Yano instead recommended an evacuation as disease and combat losses had badly reduced his force. Driven back to their base area, the Japanese began embarking their forces on September 4. Pressed by the Australians, the last Japanese forces departed Milne Bay three days later.

    Aftermath of the Battle of Milne Bay

    The fighting around Milne Bay cost Allied forces around 181 killed/missing (167 Australian, 14 American) and approximately 359 wounded. Japanese losses are estimated at 625 killed and 311 wounded. During the course of the campaign, the Japanese also killed at least 59 civilians. The Battle of Milne Bay marked the first time during the war that the Japanese had been decisively defeated on land and forced to abandon a campaign. The victory provided a needed morale boost for Australian troops fighting on the Kokoda Track to the west and to Allied forces in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

    Selected Sources

  • History of War: Battle of Milne Bay
  • Australian War Memorial: Battle of Milne Bay
  • The Kokoda Track: Battle of Milne Bay

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