The World at War

Australian tank deployment
by Graham Donaldson

At Tarakan Island, northeast Borneo early -1945

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Tarakan, a pear shaped island that lies off the swampy delta area north of the Sesajap River is 15 miles long by 11 miles at its widest with a muddy shoreline covered in mangroves and inland rising steeply from the swampy coastal plains to a tangle of hills and steep gullies covered in dense rain forest timber and jungle growth. The interior of this thickly timbered island off the north-east coast of Borneo was broken by numerous small ridges was impenetrable to tanks, and here as elsewhere, it was difficult to direct and receive artillery fire. Only one beach at Lingkas, the port for Tarakan where the main town is two miles inland, was considered viable for a large force landing named operation Oboe One. An area with the advantage of exit lines to the airfield, the suffering civilians plus valuable but wrecked oil installations and inevitably commanded by strong prepared well concealed Japanese defences unprotected by negligible enemy airstrength. Minesweepers had swept the approach channels and Hydrographic ships had sound out the approaches for the naval task force which began bombardment at 6.40am as the assault troops embarked into landing craft.
     A small force of artillery had been landed on Sadua island on the Monday, P-1day, a small piece of land a few miles north-west of the landing beaches and opened fire, their first angry shots since El Alamien, adding to the chorus. While overhead roared RAAF Liberators, after the long flight from Morotai flew into the rising pall of smoke, dropped hundreds of heavy bombs along the beachhead and the whole scene for miles disappeared behind the erupting havoc they caused. Under the command of Brig Whitehead the AIF 26BG assaulted the assigned beaches on the glorious 1 May 1945, with the Matilda tanks of ‘C Squadron 2/9AR in support. The circus equipment moved onto the seashore cleared by underwater demolition teams using bangalore demolition charges and over the entangled beach through to Anzac Highway detaching appropriate units to the infantry battalions. The troops had been placed ashore without a casualty and the tanks supporting Capt Travis’ company of the 2/24Btn attacked the airstrip with a section from D’Company 2/2 Machine Gun Btn and 3inch mortars giving preparation fire as the advance moved forward up the road. On the left the canal flooded with oil was set alight blazing black putrid smoke, a swampy morass on the right and in front a collection of minefields covered by intense Japanese screaming squall of firepower. Travis directed the Matilda tanks covering barrage at the tenacious Japanese while the pioneers cleared the minefield and the combined attack carried on to assail the far ridge beyond the airfield. In another battle to clear Tarakan town Capt Gooden’s company of the 2/48Btn was to by-pass objective Evans and supported by a troop of Matildas clear the area north to objectives Otway & Sykes.
     The avenue of approach was mined, "like a silent artillery barrage never imagined before that the ground could be so thick with death", not even in the Western Desert at Tobruk or El Alamien had there been such a fusillade of minefields, sea mines, ariel bombs, depth charges, anti-personnel bombs and all shapes and sizes of explosive material buried or hidden at intervals of a few yards. As the Australians mine-swept their way ahead the Japanese laid explosive traps for the foot soldier and literally threw 75mm shells at the tracked vehicles. This improvised primitive projectile launching was without causing fatal casualties or serious damage and the desperate would despairingly roll artillery shells down the hill at the advancing troops also throwing grenades from treetops as well. There was one Matilda that ran over something big, the earth rocked and the tank was flung twenty feet into the air to fall a shattered wreck also along most roads were ditches about a metre wide and several deep that were filled with oil then would be set alight creating a wall of fire. The Diggers, somehow, captured an Imperial Japanese marine sergeant-major that had helped construct the formidable defences, and apart from telling them a lot, he said that when they sighted the convoy and when the bombardment opened up they thought it were a divisional landing. He added if they knew it was only a brigade they would have defended the beach more vigorously.
     The AIF experts reckon that the defences were the best they had ever seen with concrete pillboxes sunk into the ground and covered in a soft eight feet thick layer of clay. And considering it was an island the Japanese garrison had nowhere to withdraw and most chose death before the dishonour of surrender. "You’ve heard of the stories about Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Okinawa...this was Tarakan!" In five days of fatal fighting the Allies had captured the airfield and Tarakan town, secured the feeble port and next phase of the operations was to destroy the fierce Japanese garrison in the jungle forested hills where the gun Matildas and circus equipment helped by clearing tracks and giving direct artillery bombardment support for ground troop attacks. First Australian Naval Bombardment Group played a key role in organising naval gunfire support from USNavy cruisers and destroyers, Royal Australian Navy HMAS Hobart and destroyer Warramunga. A troop of 3.7inch anti-aircraft guns was employed in a ground role in the hills and heavy mortars were very effective in reaching the ravines that other artillery could not. Japanese defensive pockets were reduced methodically with those quick-repeating 3.7inch bofors used to clear the trees and jungle growth exposing the enemy dug in position so direct artillery and tank fire systematically destroyed each one in turn. In a further two months of unrelenting ferocious combat the 26BG, including a third infantry formation the 2/23Btn had achieved its objectives and by the 31 July over 1,800 Japanese dead had been counted, with guerrilla forces dispatching thirty-nine, and 314 debilitated prisoners taken. Detached elements of the 2/9AR participated in this assault at Tarakan then at Brunei and at Labuan in the Borneo campaign during June and July 1945.

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