The World at War

Australian tank deployment
by Graham Donaldson

Cape Killerton, Sanananda Track Papua early 1943

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A few days later after the capture of Buna Mission US General Berryman, 32 Division, wrote down his thoughts, and concluded; "We have air superiority and are superior in numbers, guns, mortars and tanks. The problem is to use them to the best effect in the jungle." For the AIF & AMF formations, US Army and the remaining deployable tanks of 2/6AR there was another task, the reduction of the beachhead at Sanananda, as all organised Japanese resistance east of Buna was now at an end. The Japanese command were deploying as many mixed troop formations as possible, including hospital patients, in the beachhead sector. During the Japanese defensive operations the strength of the besieged was increased by about five hundred whom Colonel Yazawa brought in, about eight hundred more fresh newcomers of the 170 Regiment and possible 200 to 300 escapers, stragglers from the Buna area and the sick, tired and wounded. Cape Killerton track junction was the most forward position defended by the remaining strength of 144 Battalion, a detachment from 41 Battalion, some of the skilled 15 Independent Engineers, a battery of mountain gunners and anti-aircraft weapons all under the commanded of Colonel Tsukamoto. In the Sanananda fortification quadrant the acting commander Colonel Yokoyama set up his HQ with the balance of the 41 Regiment, the main force of the engineers, mixed troops, service conscripts and hidden artillery pieces manned by obstinate gunners.
     General Herring defined his plans to resume intensive operations against Sanananda - Cape Killerton positions with the AIF 7Division, was allotted a third formation the AMF 4th Brigade (Bde), joining the 18Bde and 30Bde, and the US 163IR. Only three Stuarts moved overland to participate in the planned smashing of a roadblock on Cape Killerton track, so by the evening of the 7 January they arrived at the bivouac area about three miles south of Supota and with a fourth tank soon to arrive at Popondetta. The rest of the AFV’s were weather bound at Cape Endaiadere by incessant rains and were to move as soon as possible. The same rains prevented planned artillery placement of 25pdrs and 4.5inch guns belonging to the artillery mettle of the 2/5 and 2/1FldRgts. The Australians, with a company from the 2/10Btn to strengthen the attack onto the road from the east, and at the same time limiting the movement of the Stuarts to the track, the 2/12Btn would drive down the artery. The track ahead was a confined defile and the track so narrow there seemed no hope of turning and the only way for the Stuarts was straight on, the tank crews had also been told that there were no anti-tank guns to hinder their advance. On 12 January 1943 in the morning mist through the thick jungle and soggy ground two attacking companies of the 2/9Btn, Lieut’s Jackson and Lloyd both killed in action during the day, started the flanking move. The day started to go wrong from the beginning when the tanks began to cross the start line at one minute past 8am, where they were subjected to an intense Japanese reception of firepower from machine-guns, mortars and various calibre guns.
     Lieut Heap led his troop of Stuarts out in line ahead receiving the clinking and clatter of fire-arms and stopped after going sixty yards, traversing his turret slowly to the left where he’d been told of a suspected bunker, a shell struck the front of the tank and ricocheted onto the drivers flap with a fiery clang stunning him. Heap glimpsed the gun flash while wielding round his own weapon to aim, a second shell hit the tank tracks, and he briskly engaged the target. A third shell hit the tank, sprung the hull gunners flap stunning him too and a fourth shell smashed through the AFV bursting inside it. Heap wounded therefore wirelessed Corporal Boughton he was getting off the track and that he was to come forward. Boughton’s tank was in turn hammered badly before it could retaliate and he was mortally wounded, but the driver, Lance-Corporal Lynn remained brave and cool while peering through the gaping hole performed the seemingly impossible feat of turning the broken vehicle about on the narrow track limping out of the fight. Undaunted Sergeant McGregor next closed in, he was not long engaging the enemy, was struck many times by a Japanese ballistic barrage and had halted then flames exploded around his Stuart, probably by a explosive charge pushed beneath it on the end of a forked stick.
     The Australian commanders were bitterly disappointed at the apparent failure of this misfortune stamped day. Maj-General Vasey, commander of the AIF 7Division, himself had decided, "To attack these (entrenched Japanese defensive positions) with infantry using their own weapons is repeating the costly mistake of 1915-17 and, in view of the limited resources which can be, at present, put into the field in this area, such attacks seem unlikely to succeed." In the meantime two Stuarts had arrived on the 15 January from Cape Endaiadere, and Lieut McCrohon in command of the tanks was sent forward to liaison with the Americans later that afternoon and to reconnoitre the area of operations. It was at once clear to him that no tanks could outflank through the morass of bog and swamp along this part of the track. American Army Colonel Doe’s newly arrived 163IR, gaining operating experience behind the enemy roadblock, was ordered to clear the track of remaining Japanese soldiers between objectives Huggins and James, harass the line of communications and block the road leading to Sanananda as well. Thus without tanks the American battalions in the immediate wake of fifteen minutes of intense heavy artillery and 81mm mortar bombardment took all day to complete the reduction of the enemy pocket defended to the last by feeble Japanese in this sector and opening the path to the enemies coastal fortress. Back at Rabual General Adachi was most anxious about the worsening plight of his determined forces gripping the Papuan coast. The Japanese had been ordered to withdraw all of its fit men back to the coastal garrison for eventual evacuation through the nights ahead, or by going bush through the dark green jungle escaping the net AMF 14Bde cast for them and leaving only the starving invalids to defend the beachheads to the last.
     In the teeth of Allied air attacks there was little to improve the situation of supply and relief for the besieged Japanese for defeat here was anticipated as inevitable, only the cost in Allied lives had to be accounted for. And a new factor had developed to hinder Japanese coastwise movements, allied torpedo boats and motor launches from Tufi had began ranging offshore waters at night and disrupting not only small surface craft but striking the slender submarine supply line link.

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