World War Two: North Africa (6-29); II Corps Operations Beyond El Guettar

By 25 March General Patton’s operations had successfully drawn off one of the German armored divisions which otherwise might have opposed the British Eighth Army. General Montgomery’s attempt to circumvent the Mareth Position through the gap southwest of El Hamma was scheduled to enter a crucial phase on the night of 26-27 March. After the First Italian Army had been uprooted by this maneuver and driven in retreat to the Chott Position, the II Corps was expected to be of additional assistance if it could send an armored task force as far as the Chott Position and perhaps farther up the coast. In the meantime, by stepping up offensive action at all possible points along the Eastern Dorsal, it could pin down Axis forces at the time when success would bring fluidity to the battle near El Hamma. General Alexander accordingly brought to General Patton at noon, 25 March, a new directive for the II Corp. The corps base line was to be advanced from the Western Dorsal to extend between Gafsa and Sbeitla. He released the U.S. 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions to II Corps for employment in current offensive operations. The 9th Division (less Combat Team 60) was to attack simultaneously with the 1st Infantry Division southeast of El Guettar. The 34th Division (less the 133rd Combat Team) was to attack by itself the Axis-held gap through the Eastern Dorsal at Fondouk el Aouareb.

[Note 29-1T: The U.S. 1st Infantry Division reported casualties for the period 17-25 March, inclusive,51 killed, 309 wounded, and 57 missing. Entry 334, 26 Mar 43, in II Corps G-3 Jnl.]

The II Corps was to abandon the attempt to use the pass east of Maknassy to move an armored column onto the coastal plain, southwest of Mahares, a plan which had been under consideration since 22 March. The U.S. 1st Armored Division would leave in the area a force containing a medium tank battalion, two artillery battalions, and the 60th Combat Team, and would assemble in concealment at least three other battalions of medium tanks ready for commitment in a mobile column thrusting southeastward toward Gabes from El Guettar.

Operations east of El Guettar would thus be on a much enlarged scale. The 26th Infantry’s zone astride the Gumtree road would be stabilized while other elements of the 1st Infantry Division and the 9th Infantry Division together opened a gap between Djebel el Meheltat (482) and Djebel el Kheroua (369), southeast of El Guettar, through which the armored column could proceed. The attack along the El Guettar-Gabcs road would be executed in three phases: first, obtaining the road junction east of Djebel el Kheroua; second, securing a position as far forward as the road loop through El Rafay between Djebel Chemsi (790) and Djebel Ben Khelr (587); and third, sending the U.S. 1st Armored Division to Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa (270), a hill on the western flank of the enemy’s Chott Position, at a time to be determined by 18 Army Group, and with the mission of harassing the enemy’s line of communications without incurring a major tank battle.

In preparation for these operations ordered by 18 Army Group on 25 March, Patton directed General Ward to have General McQuillin defend the pass east of Maknassy with a much reduced force against the enemy’s increasingly aggressive pressure, to send to Gafsa as secretly as possible the 81st Reconnaissance and 6th Field Artillery Battalions after dark on 28 March. Until further orders from II Corps Ward was to hold at Maknassy the remainder of the 1st Armored Division not assigned to McQuillin. At the same time that the II Corps was attacking at Fondouk el Aouareb and strengthening and concentrating its thrust beyond El Guettar, the Southeast Algerian Command (General Robert Boissau) at the right of II Corps was directed by 18 Army Group to press forward in the valley between Djebel Berda (926) and Djebel el Asker (625), to the south.

[Note 6-1NA1: McQuillin’s command was to consist of his Combat Command A headquarters; the 1st Armored Regiment (less 1st and 2nd Battalions); the 3rd Battalion, 6th Armorcd Infantry; Combat Team 60: two battalions of the 5th Armored Field Artillery Group (the 58th and 62nd); one battery, 443rd Coast Artillery (AA) Battalion (SP); and the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion.]

Two Divisions East of El Guettar,28-29 March

The II Corps renewed its attack towards Gabes at 0600, 28 March, as the enemy farther southeast was occupying the Chott Position and abandoning the Mareth Line. Opposite II Corps the German Africa Corps had built up a strong defensive front. Its back bone was the 10th Panzer Division (less elements committed east of Maknassy under Group Lang) interlaced with units of the Division Centauro. The enemy, making the best possible use of terrain well suited for defense, concentrated his forces in strongpoints, organized during earlier weeks, and effectively supported them with artillery and mortars. German air reconnaissance had detected Allied movements in the Maknassy-Sened area.

The enemy interpreted these movements to indicate an American shift to the defensive in the sector east of Maknassy. But at the same time enemy intelligence concluded that these moves of Allied armored groups constituted a threat to the 10th Panzer Division’s north Hank via passes southwest of Djebel Bou Douaou (753), Meich, Sened, or Sakket.

This assumption was altogether incorrect. Nevertheless, it caused General von Broich to abandon the idea of striking with his main armored force toward El Guettar along the Gumtree road. Instead, he held Group Reimann (2nd Battalion, 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, reinforced by elements of the 7th Panzer Regiment and artillery) in positions north of the Gumtree road at Djebel Hamadi (567) and Djebel Bou Small (608) to act as his flank force. Von Broich ordered the 2nd Battalion, 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, defending the northernmost portion of the curving horseshoe of Djebel el Meheltat, known as Rass ed Dekhla (536), to extend its line eastward to conform with Group Reimann’s new defensive mission. The 49th Panzer Pionier Battalion, meantime, continued to hold the main portion of Djebel el Meheltat with its Hill 482. The gap between it and the northeastern tip of Djebel Berda was held by elements of the Centauro Division. To their left was the 10th Motorcycle Battalion extending the Axis line to include Hill 772 on Djebel Berda. Other Italian units guarded the extreme south flank as far as Djebel el Asker.

On the Allied side, in the El Guettar sector, the 9th Infantry Division, using five of its six available infantry battalions, was expected to seize Hill 369 at the eastern end of Djebel el Kheroua. The division had never gone into attack as a unit. The prospective test was anything but easy. With imperfect maps and inadequate reconnaissance the division was to attack at night over several miles of open plain in an effort to reach the Djebel Berda complex. Those hills were steep, deeply eroded into numerous gorges, lacking in vegetation, jagged and craggy.

Trails were difficult. Movement through the valleys and gulches was controlled from the adjacent high ground. Progress in any given direction over the often precipitous slopes and twisting ridges would be very difficult to maintain. Several peaks and high crests provided excellent observation enabling those who possessed them to control fire or direct the maneuvers of toiling troop units which could not see each other. In the opinion of those who fought there, the Djebel Berda, and particularly its eastern extremity, was a natural fortress capable of being defended by minimum forces for an indefinite period.

[NOTE 62-1NA:, (1) Combat Team 60, 9th Division, was attached to the 1st Armored Division. (2) Staff of the 9th Infantry Division: commanding general, Major General Manton S. Eddy; assistant division commander, Brigadier General Donald A. Stroh; chief of staff, Colonel Samuel A. Gibson; G~I, Lt. Colonel C. F. Enright; G-2, Major Robert W. Robb; G~3, Lieutenant Colonel Alvar B. Sundin; G-4, Major George E. Pickett; artillery commander, Brigadier General S. LeRoy Irwin.]

[NoTE 63-2NA: (1) When they later analyzed the problem in the light of their experience, they concluded that Hill 772, the paramount observation point, should first have been captured and held, after which simultaneous attacks should have been made from west to east along the ridges of three lower mountains [Draa Saada el Hamra (316), Djebel el Kheroua, and Djebel Lettouchi (361)] with the object of capturing Hills 290, 369, and 361 respectively. Attempts to capture Draa Saada el Hamra or Djebel el Kheroua by direct assault against their northwestern faces across the open plain and valley were almost certain to result in costly failure. (2) 9th Inf Div AAR, 26 Mar-8 Apr 43, 25 Aug 43, Annex B, Terrain Study.]

The 9th Division plan of attack for 28 March provided that General Eddy’s two regiments should assemble at the northwestern base of Djebel Berda, in the area which had been abandoned three nights earlier. The 47th Infantry (Colonel Edwin H. Randle) was to move to attack Hill 369 from the west and south, one battalion going along Djebel Lettouchi, another along Djebel el Kheroua, and a third remaining in reserve but following toward Djebel el Kheroua. The 1st Battalion, 39th Infantry, was to be in division reserve behind the 47th Infantry. The remainder of the 39th Infantry was to be motorized and held, near the northeastern corner of the Chott el Guettar, also in division reserve. The plan modified another prepared the previous day, and was issued too late to enable all units to make the necessary adaptations and preparations.

The attack of 28-29 March started out as planned, with the 47th Infantry heading for Hill 369 in column of battalions from assembly points at the foot of Djebel Berda. The 1st Battalion, 39th Infantry, followed by bounds. But the silhouette of Draa Saada el Hamra ridge (with Hill 290) was mistaken for Djebel el Kheroua (with Hill 369). The 1st and 3rd Battalions, 47th Infantry, captured the ridge but did not gain and occupy Hill 290, at its tip. The plans went further astray through the miscarriage of a maneuver by the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry. Taking a route of approach during the latter part of the night somewhat to the south, this unit marched into a confusing jumble of hills and rough terrain between Djebel el Kheroua and Djebel Lettouchi, remained out of touch with the regiment for about thirty-six hours, and lost its battalion commander, intelligence officer and communication officer, its entire Company E, and the commanders of two other Companies, for more than a day during which, with parts of the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, it fought as a provisional battalion under Captain James D. Johnston in the area of Hill 772. Thus the first day’s abortive operations had been costly to the division, which now faced the second day with only two more infantry battalions on which to draw when attacking its true objective for the first time.

General Eddy arranged during 28 March to send the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, after dark to the vicinity of Hill 290, which it was to skirt in order to approach Hill 369 from the north for a night bayonet attack while the two battalions of the 47th Infantry on Draa Saada el Hamra ridge assisted from the west. This venture was also frustrated. The truck column moving down the Gabes road drove much too close to Hill 290, from which it received heavy fire. Badly demoralized and severely hurt, most of the column pulled out and hurried back all the way to the starting point. The remainder, pinned down and unable to move in daylight, straggled back thirty-six hours later.

[NOTE 63-29NA: The reserve battalion (1st Battalion, 39th Infantry), committed on division order to advance toward the hills around Djebel el Kheroua, also became lost to (1) In all, 232 enlisted men and 10 officers were taken prisoners. 10th Panzer Diu, Ie, Taetigkeitsbericht, 28 Mar 43. (2) 47th lnf Hist, 1943, p. 6.]

Hill 369 remained in seeming immunity, jeopardizing any passage down the road to Gabes and prolonging the first phase of the II Corps operations under the army group instructions of 25 March. The battalions on Draa Saada el Hamra ridge and in the Djebel Berda complex would have to reorganize before being able to launch an effective assault for the capture of Hill 369, and the shifts would have to be made at night. They could not begin reorganizing until the night of 30-31 March and that meant that no strong attempt would be possible before 1-2 April, although attacks on Hill 290 were kept up in the interval.

Operations thus far had demonstrated not only how attacks could go wrong but also that the enemy’s positions were hewn from rock and very effectively placed for shelter or defensive fire. Mortars became the favored infantry weapon, once the battle in the hills demonstrated their superior effectiveness, while relatively low amounts of rifle ammunition were used.

The 1st Infantry Division meanwhile executed its part of the II Corps attack on 28 March on a front narrowed by the 9th Infantry Division’s assumption of the sector from Djebel Berda to the Gabes road (inclusive) . General Allen’s sector extended from this road to the hills north of the Gumtree road. He placed the 16th Infantry on the southwest near Hill 336, and the 26th Infantry to the north. The 18th Infantry he initially held north of Djebel el Ank (621).

By 29 March, the 1st Infantry Division attack, especially in the northeast sector along Gumtree road, was progressing much more rapidly than the assault of the 9th Infantry Division farther south. As the German line was pulled back, the 18th Infantry ( – ) advanced toward Djebel Hamadi and Hill 574, thus protecting the flank of the 26th Combat Team, which captured Rass ed Dekhla and subsequently turned south in an envelopment movement aiming for Hill 482 on Djebel el Meheltat. The 16th Infantry also attacked that objective. But its advance was far more difficult since it had to be executed over a four mile stretch of open terrain and in full view of the enemy. Progress consequently was slow and costly. At the end of the day the Germans were still in firm possession of Hill 482.

Some units of the 1st Armored Division had already assembled, as noted above, to defend Gafsa in the event of a German break-through east of El Guettar, and General Patton ordered others brought down during the night of 28-29 March. The units from Maknassy had been summoned in anticipation of an armored attack from El Guettar down the Gabes road. General Patton had tried to conceal the assembly of this force, and was angry because the last contingent arrived at 0700, 29 March, instead of before dawn. The day of the 29th passed without the capture of Hill 482 on the southern portion of Djebel el Meheltat, an event which was to have concluded the first phase of II Corps operations east of El Guettar. “We are trying to be simple, not change our plans when once made, and keep on fighting,” wrote General Patton to General Marshall that day as he outlined what the II Corps had thus far been doing.

The Armored Attack Toward Gabes, 30 March-l April

Late on 29 March, 18 Army Group for the fourth time revised its directive to the U.S. II Corps. The situation was critical. The attack at Fondouk el Aouareb was failing. The one at Maknassy had been abandoned. The infantry operations to open a gap for the armor southeast of El Guettar were making no progress. At this juncture, therefore, General Alexander instructed General Patton to organize the defense of Maknassy, Sened, and Gafsa in accordance with a most detailed assignment of Patton’s units, and to launch an armored force next morning to break its own way through the enemy’s barrier on the El Guettar-Gabes road ahead of the infantry. After some of the difficulties involved in this set of instructions had been resolved, Patton determined to put the 1st Armored Division’s task force under Colonel Benson,[N63-92NA] whose aggressiveness he admired. To make certain that that quality was kept undimmed, he sent General Gaffey to “keep an eye on the show.” The basic plan of operations beyond El Guettar had been radically modified by the sudden change in 18 Army Group’s intentions, a change which in turn came as a result of developments elsewhere.

[NOTE 63-92NA(1) Patton Diary, 29 Mar 43. (2) II Corps G-3 Periodic Rpt 56, 30 Mar 43. This lists the elements of Task Force Benson as: 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment (mediums); 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment (mediums); the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion: the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion; the 65th and 68th Field Artillery Battalions; Company B, 16th Engineer Battalion (C). The 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry, was attached from the 9th Division on 30 March. The 2nd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry, joined during the night of 30-31 March.]

By 30 March the British Eighth Army’s battle had shifted from the Mareth Position and El Hamma area to the Chott Position. While General Montgomery reorganized for the next attempt to punch through General Messe’s prepared defenses on the narrow front along the Akarit wadi, an American foray into the Axis flank, by drawing off defending troops, would obviously assist the impending attack.

At the same time, during these preparations the enemy would be free at least temporarily to detach some of his mobile reserves. He could thus employ the 21st Panzer Division, as in fact he did. He might have committed it at Maknassy. For several days, he had feared an Allied break-through there, although Kesselring recognized that such an Allied success, by leading the Americans onto a funnel-like plain and exposing them to the danger of encirclement, might ultimately benefit the Axis forces. Such fears had abated by 30 March, when it was for a time possible to consider sending a German armored column through Maknassy toward Gafsa. But the small force that could then be assembled would have been inadequate for such a thrust, and it might have been encircled and isolated.

In the end the Allied initiative in concentrating for a drive southeast of El Guettar drew to that front first, on 29 March, the Panzer Grenadier Regiment, Africa, and, the next day, elements of the 21st Panzer Division and an intensified commitment of the German Luftwaffe. To prevent an American success there, the 21st Panzer Division on 30 March put Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer (consisting of one battalion of panzer grenadiers, artillery, antitank, engineer, and Flak units) at the 10th Panzer Division’s disposal and on 31 March the whole division during the afternoon joined in the attempt to repel Task Force Benson.’s The II Corps operations near El Guettar from 30 March to 1 April had some initial success but did not achieve all objectives. To assist Task Force Benson’s penetration, the artillery fire of both infantry divisions and of II Corps was massed.

The 9th Infantry Division’s attack at 0600, 30 March, was prefaced by fifteen battalion and six battery concentrations on Djebel Lettouehi and Djebel el Kheroua. This bombardment enabled the infantry to take but not to hold part of Djebel Lettouchi, while it could not even establish a footing on other hills. The 1st Infantry Division was more successful After a morning attack, followed first by three hours of shelling by four artillery battalions, and then by a renewed infantry assault, the 26th Infantry was able to get most but not all the southern portion of Djebel el Mcheltat (Hill 482 and adjacent ridges)

Task Force Benson began its attack at noon of 30 March but did not get very far. The enemy’s artillery and antitank weapons, many of them mobile, were well placed and proved much too strong. A mine field barred Benson’s advance through the pass between Djebel Meheltat and Hill 369. Before he could pull the column back out of range and extricate the leading vehicles, enemy fire knocked out five tanks and two tank destroyers. But after dark, the Americans cleared a lane through the mines north of the road and made preparations for an attack next morning at 0600 by the 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry. The object of this attack was to clear the enemy from the south side of the Gabes road and establish contact with the 9th Infantry Division. This task was accomplished. Enemy defenders finally abandoned Hill 290 after repeated American attacks and fell back one mile to their main line of resistance.

(‘ 9th Infantry Division was supported by the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 26th, 34th, and 84th Field Artillery Battalions. 9th Div AAR, 25 Aug 43. (2) The 1st Infantry Division was supported by the 5th, 7th, 32nd, and 33rd Field Artillery Battalions. Corps supplied the 1st Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment; 1st Battalion, 36th Field Artillery Regiment; and a battalion of the 178th Field Artilltery Regiment. 1st Div G-3 Rpt, 17 Apr 43.)

Patton’s first inclination on 31 March was to send his G-3, Colonel Kent C. Lambert, to Colonel Benson with instructions to slam his way through at the cost, if need be, of a whole tank company, but he reconsidered, and planned instead an attack at 1600 in which supporting artillery and air would be coordinated with infantry and armor. The 9th Infantry Division put two companies on Hill 290, and one company each on three elevations west of that objective, and fed in more units to get Hill 772, towering above them all. General Eddy decided that his division must extend far enough westward onto Djebel Berda to include its crest. Meanwhile the 1st Infantry Division in a two pronged attack sent elements of Combat Teams 16 from the west and 26 from the north against the southeast tip of Djebel el Meheltat, which they kept under attack all day but did not wholly occupy.

Without waiting for the coordinated attack scheduled for 1600, Benson organized a tank-infantry attack which began at about 1230. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, passed through the lane in the mine field, farmed out, and although it lost eight tanks (four of which were salvaged), it gained possession of most of the ground from the road to the foothills at the north and destroyed several 88’s and lighter antitank guns, plus an estimated six tanks. The battalion, without any infantry support, clung to its gains until the next afternoon. The 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, then relieved it but had to yield some ground to increased enemy pressure. In these attacks Benson’s force had lost a total of thirteen tanks and two tank destroyers. Clearly, the tactical situation in the valley was inappropriate for armored exploitation. The enemy first had to be ousted from antitank positions by infantry and artillery before the armor could lunge ahead.

To reduce the enemy’s resistance to Benson’s attacks, Patton ordered a diversionary attack by elements of General Ward’s command north of Maknassy. Patton hoped that this might also assist Ryder’s operations at Fondouk el Aouareb. On 31 March, General Ward ordered Combat Command A under General McQuillin to seize the mining village of Meheri Zebbeus and Djebel Djebs No.1 (369) and thus to be in position for a breakout toward Sfax. Combat Command C under Colonel Stack remained at the railroad pass east of Maknassy. Most of McQuillin’s units, particularly the infantry, had been defending their limited gains east and north of Maknassy against unremitting pressure from Kampfgruppe Lang ever since 27 March. They had had little relief or rest, and many casualties, and their performance reflected their poor condition. The attack began late and was smothered at its inception when its flare-illuminated right flank came under heavy machine gun fire at the base of the mountain. The defense successfully held off the infantry attack by artillery fire throughout 1 April and by next day, when Benson’s attack was suspended, the whole operation had lost purpose and was abandoned.

The enemy had by then brought about another change in 18 Army Group’s instructions to General Patton. Enemy antitank fire had for three days thwarted the attempt by Benson’s armored force to smash through his lines. Enemy air attacks by 1 April were almost incessant, amounting to at least 163 sorties in 51 distinct attacks, killing fifteen and wounding fifty-five. Late that day, General Alexander therefore ordered that the tank attacks be discontinued, and he revived instead the original scheme of 25 March that infantry operations should open the way, with the tanks in support. The second phase, that of securing positions as far forward as the pass between Djebel Chemsi and Djebel Ben Kheir, was now to begin.

Strict compliance with even these instructions was not yet possible, for the enemy still held Hill 772 and Hill 369, and dominated the pass to the north. It was already painfully apparent that II Corps’ progress toward the coast had suffered severely from the cautious restraint and frequent changes in instructions imposed by 18 Army Group at the beginning of Operation WOP. Its restraining influence had permitted the enemy to occupy extremely defensible ground while the Americans were tethered to Gafsa and El Guettar.

It was now obvious how unfortunate had been the withdrawal of the right flank on Djebel Berda on the night of 25 and 26 March. Yet it must be remembered that the object of these operations remained primarily to divert enemy reserves rather than to advance onto the coastal plain against the enemy’s principal force. Even if the American armored column had been in a position to gain access, either by infantry action or its own bludgeoning attack, to the enemy’s rear area, General Alexander would then have had to decide whether he thought such an operation was advisable. As General Patton explained to General Marshall, Alexander specified the scope of each operation. “All I have is actual conduct of the operations prescribed.”

Tactical Air Support of II Corps

By 1 April, the new doctrine of air support which had been applied to the operations of II Corps seemed to have failed. The three American fighter groups operating from Thelepte and the group of light bombers from Youks-les-Bains had been visible to the ground troops from time to time, but most of their accomplishments had been out of sight and hearing. They had bombed Gafsa on 17 March, before the attack there, and on 23 March had helped throw back the 10th Panzer Division’s counterattack, but their main mission was to win air superiority in Tunisia for the Allies by fighter sweeps against enemy aircraft in the air, and by bombing and strafing strikes against planes on the enemy’s airfields. Their energies had been fully employed and they were inflicting severe damage on the enemy’s air force, but in the II Corps area, in sharp contrast to the situation over the Eighth Army, the air was far from being under Allied control. The daily report from II Corps to 18 Army Group for 1 April described enemy aviation as operating almost at will over the ground troops of II Corps because of the absence of Allied air cover. Indeed, the many enemy air attacks on 1 April against Task Force Benson near El Guettar intensified the sense of frustration brought about by the enemy’s reinforcement of his opposing ground units.

Since tactical air support had been furnished without stint, according to the Coningham doctrine, this commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force warmly resented Patton’s description of conditions on his battlefield. He met the complaint by a sarcastic and supercilious rejoinder reflecting on American troops which he subsequently withdrew and for which he made appropriate official amends at General Patton’s insistence. The incident subjected the solidarity of Anglo-American collaboration in arms to one of its severest tests, one through which it emerged unshaken. While Air Chief Marshal Tedder, General Spaatz, and Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter were visiting Patton’s headquarters the day before Coningham himself came in connection with the matter, the Germans bombed the area around headquarters as if to confirm the protest that the II Corps was not benefiting from Allied air superiority.

But numerical superiority was increasing. Northwest African Tactical Air Force had, on 17 March, 319 aircraft and Strategic Air Force, 383; the enemy was operating far fewer from Tunisian airfields. The enemy was soon trying to maintain his air strength by putting Italian crews in German fighters, dive bombers, and bombers and incorporating them in Luftwaffe formations. The Stuka was driven out of use in Tunisia by the improved antiaircraft fire to which it was subjected and by the ability of Allied fighters to jump the dive bombers during their operations from forward fields.

II Corps Is Held, 2-6 April

The American forces east of El Guettar returned, between 2 and 6 April, to the grinding effort to occupy the hills and ridges along the Gumtree and the Gabes roads. The armored force now followed up the infantry line rather than serving as a spearhead.

Artillery strength increased, the ammunition expenditure was very heavy. The line lengthened to almost twenty miles as it moved eastward, greatly extending the troops of the 1st Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division continued to be absorbed in unsuccessful struggles to master the rugged terrain west of Hill 369 on Djebel el Kheroua. Its attacks from various directions on Hill 772 on Djebel Berda were repulsed again and again. Elsewhere its success was incomplete, and the large number of casualties, particularly those of the 47th Infantry, made it less and less likely that the tired troops could ever gain the divisional objective. Both infantry divisions drew engineer troops into the line as infantry before the end, and both were pushed to the limit, as was the enemy force which opposed them. The 1st Infantry Division drove doggedly ahead to take the village of Sakket on 3 April, but slowed down thereafter.

Its losses were not greatly different from those of the 9th Infantry Division, but were sustained by a full three-regiment unit and were therefore proportionately lighter. The badly strained forward supply services over the mountains were performed by pack mules, Arabs, and Italian prisoners. The south flank of the 1st Infantry Division was not in contact with the 9th Infantry Division, and continued exposure to flank attack threatened eventually to halt the advance.

German preparations for withdrawal were observed and misinterpreted as concentration for another armored counterattack like that of 23 March. Special defensive measures were therefore taken on 5 April. The men dug in, determined to hold on. The 19th Engineers (Combat), the 1st Ranger Battalion, and elements of the 1st Tank Destroyer Group set up a switch line along the Keddab wadi to stop any force that might come either along the road from Gabes or around the western end of Djebel Berda. The absence of information at II Corps headquarters on the operations of the British Eighth Army was partly responsible for the perturbation which for a time prevailed.

After an enemy counterattack failed to materialize and it became evident that he intended to withdraw, the two infantry divisions were again sent into an attack east of El Guettar on 6 April with their common objective a north-south line roughly equivalent to that of the first phase set out in the army group’s plan of 25 March. Task Force Benson followed up closely in the late afternoon and pushed beyond the road junction northeast of Djebel Berda.

After several days of artillery dueling, the elements of the 1st Armored Division nearer Maknassy put on another diversionary attack, Combat Command B hitting at Djebel Malzila (522) and Combat Command C demonstrating at Hill 322. American hopes of breaking through to interfere with the Italian First Army’s line of communications or with its defensive stand at the Chott Position were flickering out. Progress since 2 April had been much too slow to achieve such results. The higher levels of command were disappointed in operations to date, feeling that not enough had been achieved to promise success. The infantry divisions poked and jabbed at the defenders in their mountain positions without quite breaking their persistent hold. Those divisions seemed to be engaging the major part of the enemy’s forces. The reinforced armored division, on the other hand, after forfeiting its best chance of successful action early on 22 March at Maknassy, seemed to have spent itself against an enemy who was inferior in strength but had exploited skillfully his advantage of position. The Armored division had also been seriously dispersed by the withdrawal of units for Task Force Benson directly under II Corps, and by the semi-independent operations of Combat Command B north of Maknassy.

After going over to the defensive on 27 March it had withstood a series of enemy attacks, skillfully varied and often temporarily successful, and had sustained heavy losses. General Patton prodded his subordinates continually, and in the hope of bringing new energy and enthusiasm to the 1st Armored Division, (The casualties of 1st Armored Division reported at the end of the operation were (including Combat Team 60, attached): 304 killed, 1,265 wounded, 116 missing.) he acted on a suggestion of General Alexander which confirmed his own inclination, and on 5 April replaced its commander, General Ward, by General Harmon. Harmon, who had returned to the 2nd Armored Division in Morocco after his February service as General Fredendall’s deputy, took command as the tide was turning in south central Tunisia. Patton’s chief of staff, General Gaffey, shortly took command of the 2nd Armored Division. General Ward returned to the United States, was given command of the Tank Destroyer Center, and eventually commanded the 20th Armored Division in Europe.

The Enemy Pulls Out, 6-8 April

To 18 Army Group it was apparent on the night of 6-7 April that the battle for the Chott Position had reached its critical stage. General Patton was instructed to furnish maximum aid in the morning. Patton ordered American armor to be shoved eastward without regard for casualties, and the entire II Corps to drive forward for a spurt down the homestretch.

Almost all of the enemy forces disengaged and slipped eastward under cover of a very heavy artillery bombardment during the night of 6-7 April, so that the attack in the morning encountered no resistance but went “smoothly.” Task Force Benson, reduced to one battalion of tanks, one tank destroyer company, and one company of armored infantry, started out early after Patton’s admonition to the commander to plough through all resistance, and under Patton’s direct scrutiny from Colonel Randle’s observation post. Later, as the drive got under way, the corps commander hounded Benson by radio, then with General Keyes followed him in a jeep, and when the task force stopped at a mine field, led the way through it. The jeep continued southeastward until it had reached the Kilometer 70 road marker (from Gabes). Reluctantly turning back, Patton met Benson and again told him to keep going “for a fight or a bath.” Task Force Benson rolled eastward as never before. It crossed into the British Eighth Army’s zone soon after the General had given his parting instruction, and between 1600 and 1700, if it did not reach the ocean shore or the enemy’s positions, nevertheless arrived at a point of contact with a British Eighth Army reconnaissance detail southwest of Sebkret en Noua.

The meeting was a juncture of Allied forces from the eastern and western limits of the Mediterranean littoral. Closing in behind the Italian First Army, both were arriving at the threshold of the war’s final phase in Tunisia. Task Force Benson withdrew, in conformity with the auxiliary mission assigned to the II Corps, to assist in driving the enemy toward Mezzouna into the main stream of Axis retreat. American artillery in the vicinity of Maknassy, and American aviation from the XII Air Support Command, harried the enemy along the Gumtree road and forced him to take secondary routes. They blocked the road with enemy vehicles, forcing the 10th Panzer Division to use a trail near the northern edge of the Sebkret en Noual.

On the hills east of Maknassy, Group Lang remained through daylight of 8 April, covering the withdrawal of the 10th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division, and Division Centauro from points farther south. After dark, Colonel Lang’s command joined the divisions under control of Headquarters, German Africa Corps, to complete the northward march along the Eastern Dorsal.

The pass east of Maknassy, which both sides had so long tried in vain to possess and exploit, was occupied by Combat Team 60 and held until all Axis troops had unmistakably departed. The 1st Armored Division, whether from the Maknassy area, the El Guettar area, or elsewhere, concentrated near Sbeitla and Sidi Bou Zid pending the outcome of operations on the coastal plain between Faid and Fondouk el Aouareb. Only one slim possibility remained of interfering effectively with the withdrawal of the First Italian Army, the German Africa Corps, and Fifth Panzer Army into northeastern Tunisia. This possibility was the use of Fondouk el Aouareb gap to place a strong Allied force on the coastal plain to hit the retreating enemy on the western flank while the Eighth Army pressed from the south. The II Corps might have been used aggressively at this point. Instead, the 9th Infantry Division pulled back at once to the Bou Chebka area, preparatory to an early shift within the week to the extreme northern flank of the British 5 Corps in the Sedjenane area.

The 1st Infantry Division withdrew for five days rest and reorganization near Morsott, north of Tebessa. The 1st Armored Division remained somewhat longer in the Sbeitla-Sidi Bou Zid area. And the 34th Division passed from II Corps to the operational control of British 9 Corps. The 18 Army Group decided to make another attack at Fondouk el Aouareb gap using the army group reserve, reinforced by elements from II Corps and British First Army. Offensive operations by II Corps in central or southern Tunisia were at an end.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: North Africa (6-30); Attacks at Fondouk el Aouareb – Pursuit Onto the Plain

World War Two: North Africa (6-28); Gafsa, Maknassy, and El Guettar (17-25 March)


World War Two: New Guinea;Markham Valley and the Huon Peninsula

While South Pacific troops had been so heavily engaged in New Georgia, General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific forces were executing Operation II of the ELKTON plan—the seizure of the Markham Valley and the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea—aimed at increasing the Southwest Pacific Area’s degree of control over Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. This operation had actually started in January 1943 with the Australian defense of Wau in the Bulolo Valley, and was furthered by the Australian advance from the Bulolo Valley toward Salamaua and the go June landing of the MacKechnie Force at Nassau Bay.

The Allies

The ground forces in Operation II (or POSTERN) were under command of the New Guinea Force. General Blarney arrived at Port Moresby and assumed command of the New Guinea Force on 20 August 1943, and General Herring went to Dobodura, where as general officer commanding the I Australian Corps he exercised control over tactical operations. General Blarney was responsible for coordination of ground, air, and naval planning. In the actual conduct of ground, air, and naval operations, the principle of co-operation rather than unity of command appears to have been followed.

The operations involved in the seizure of the Huon Peninsula and the Markham Valley were complex. The Southwest Pacific lacked enough ships for a completely amphibious assault, and had too few aircraft for a completely airborne attack; there were enough ground troops, but New Guinea terrain precluded large-scale overland movements. To bring sufficient power to bear General MacArthur and his subordinates and staff therefore employed all available means—amphibious assault, an assault by parachute troops, an airlift of an entire division, and the shore-to-shore operation already executed at Nassau Bay.

MacArthur, in operations instructions issued before the invasions of Woodlark, Kiriwina, and Nassau Bay, and followed by a series of amendments, ordered the New Guinea Force to seize the Lae-Markham Valley area by co-ordinated airborne and overland operations through the Markham Valley and amphibious operations (including Nassau Bay) along the north coast of New Guinea. The Markham Valley operations were to be based on Port Moresby; the north coast operations on Buna and Milne Bay. MacArthur directed the seizure of the coastal areas of the Huon Gulf, including Salamaua and Finschhafen, and initially ordered the New Guinea Force to be prepared for airborne-overland and shore-to-shore operations along the north coast of New Guinea as far as Madang on Astrolabe Bay. The immediate objectives were Lae and the Markham and Ramu Valleys.

The two river valleys form a tremendous trough between the Finisterre and Kratke Ranges. Starting at the mouth of the Markham River at Lae and running northwesterly for 380 miles to the mouth of the Ramu, the trough varies from 5 to 25 miles in width. The rivers flow in opposite directions from a plain in the level uplands of the trough some 80 miles northwest of Lae. Both valleys contain extensive flats of grass-covered sand and gravel, and thus there were many excellent sites for air bases. Already in existence were several emergency strips that had been used by Australian civil aviation before the war.

Lae, a prewar sea terminal for air service to the Bulolo Valley, had a developed harbor and airfield, and was the key to successful employment of airfields in the valleys. Once it was captured, ships could carry supplies to Lae, and roads could be pushed up the Markham Valley to carry supplies to the airfields. The New Guinea Force was ordered to construct airfields in the Lae-Markham Valley area as specified by General Kenney. They were eventually to include facilities for two fighter groups, some night fighters, two medium and two light bombardment groups, one observation squadron, one photo-reconnaissance squadron, and four transport squadrons. MacArthur wanted Madang taken in order to protect the Southwest Pacific’s left flank during the subsequent landings on New Britain. Salamaua was not an important objective, but MacArthur and Blarney ordered the 3rd Australian Division with the MacKechnie Force attached to press against it for purposes of deception. They wanted the Japanese to believe that Salamaua and not Lae was the real objective, and so to strengthen Salamaua at Lae’s expense.
The commander in chief ordered Kenney and Carpender to support the New Guinea Force with their Allied Air and Allied Naval Forces. Allied Land Forces could make the necessary troops available.

U.S. Army Services of Supply and Line of Communications units of Allied Land Forces would provide logistical support. From thirty to ninety days of various classes of supply was to be stocked at intermediate and advance bases. General Marshall’s U.S. Army Services of Supply would be responsible for supply of American forces in the Huon Peninsula and Markham Valley, and would provide all items to the Army and Navy. MacArthur ordered Marshall’s command to aid Allied Naval Forces in transporting the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade to the combat zone, and to prepare to relieve Allied Naval Forces of the responsibility for transporting supplies to Lae and to Woodlark and Kiriwina.

Some of the plan’s outstanding features were the ways it proposed to use air power. The impending assault by parachute would be the first tactical employment of parachute troops as such by Allied forces in the Pacific.[N9-2]The combination of airlifted troops and parachute troops in co-ordination with amphibious assault had also not been used hitherto by the Allies in the Pacific. The year before, General Whitehead had “sold the Aussies on the scheme of an airborne show at Nadzab to take Lae out from the back,” and General MacArthur had liked the idea too, but there were not enough transport planes in the area to carry it out at that time. Generals MacArthur and Blarney had planned to operate overland from the Lakekamu River to the Bulolo Valley and thence to the Markham Valley in conjunction with a parachute assault by one battalion. Delays in building the mountain road from the Lakekamu to the Bulolo Valley made necessary a decision to land an entire parachute regiment at Nadzab, a superb airfield site in the Markham Valley where a prewar Australian airstrip already existed, and to fly an entire division from Port Moresby to Nadzab immediately afterward.

[N9-2:The 1st Marine Parachute Battalion fought well at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in 1942, but it fought on foot as an infantry battalion. It made no tactical jumps.]

The third unusual feature of the POSTERN air operations was made possible by General Kenney’s enthusiastic willingness to try any experiment that offered a hope of success and by the fact that both Allied and Japanese forces were concentrated in small enclaves on the New Guinea coast, with the highlands and hinterland available to whichever force could maintain patrols there. On General Kenney’s recommendation, MacArthur ordered the development of two grass strips, one in the Watut Valley west of Salamaua and the other in the grassy plateau south of Madang where the Markham and Ramu Rivers rise. These strips could serve as staging bases that would enable Kenney to send fighters from Port Moresby and Dobodura as far as the expanding enemy base at Wewak or over the western part of New Britain, and to give fighter cover to Allied bombers in the vicinity of Lae. Thus the Allied Air Forces would be using inland airfields to support and protect a seaborne invasion of a coastal area.

D Day was set for planning purposes as 1 August, but was postponed to 27 August and finally to 4 September to permit the assembly of enough C-47’s, more training for the 7th Australian Division, and the relief of the VII Amphibious Force of its responsibilities for Woodlark and Kiriwina. The precise date was picked by General Kenney on the basis of weather forecasts. He wanted fog over western New Britain and Vitiaz and Dampier Straits that would keep Japanese aircraft away while bright clear weather over New Guinea—a fairly common condition—permitted the flight to and jump into the Markham Valley. The fourth of September promised to be such a date and was selected.

The final tactical plans were prepared by New Guinea Force and by the various higher headquarters in the Allied Air and Allied Naval Forces under the supervision of General MacArthur, General Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, and such subordinates as General Chamberlin, the G-3 of GHQ.[N9-5]

[N9-5: GHQ supervised the preparation of the plans for Operation II more closely than, for example, those for Woodlark-Kiriwina. The staff at GHQ felt that New Guinea Force and subordinate headquarters were slow in preparing plans, tended to prepare plans for initiating operations rather than for carrying them through completely, failed to provide for co-ordination of forces, and did not thoroughly appreciate logistics. See Memo, Chamberlin for CofS GHQ SWPA, 28 Aug 43, no sub, in GHQ SWPA G-3 Jnl, 16 Jul 43.]

Final plans, issued in August, called for the employment of two veteran Australian divisions, the 7th and the 9th, the U.S. 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and elements of the U.S. 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, as well as the American and Australian troops already pressing against Salamaua in their deception maneuver. The 9th Australian Division was to be carried by the VII Amphibious Force, with elements of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, attached, from Milne Bay to beaches far enough east of Lae to be beyond range of enemy artillery.

Early plans had called for the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade to carry the 9th Australian Division to Lae and support it thereafter. But closer study showed that an engineer special brigade could carry and support but one brigade in reduced strength—about 3,000 men, or not nearly enough to attack Lae. Therefore the VII Amphibious Force was ordered to carry the 9th Division, and the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade was attached to Barbey’s command for the initial phases.

Two brigade groups, totaling 7,800 men, plus elements of the amphibian engineers, were to land starting at 0630, 4 September. That evening 2,400 more Australians would land, and on the night of 5-6 September the VII Amphibious Force, having retired to Buna after unloading on 4 September, was to bring in the 3,800 men of the reserve brigade group. The time for H Hour, 0630, was selected because it came thirty minutes past sunrise, by which time the light would be suitable for the preliminary naval bombardment.

Admiral Carpender organized his Allied Naval Forces into almost the same task forces that he had set up for Woodlark and Kiriwina and assigned them similar missions. Admiral Barbey organized his VII Amphibious Force into a transport group of 2 destroyers, 4 APD’s, 13 LST’s, 20 LCI’s, 14 LCT’s and 1 AP; a cover group of 4 destroyers; an escort group of 2 destroyers; an APC group of 13 APC’s, 9 LST’s, and 2 subchasers; and a service group of 1 tender, 3 LST’s, 10 subchasers, 5 minesweepers, 1 oiler, and 1 tug. The attached engineer special brigade elements possessed 10 LCM’s and 40 LCVP’s.
Allied Air Forces’ plans for support of the invasion called for General Whitehead to provide close support to ground troops, to provide escort and cover for the amphibious movements, to establish an air blockade over Huon Peninsula, to specify to General Blarney the air facilities to be constructed in the target areas, and to prepare to move forward to the new bases.

But again there was an argument over the method by which the air forces would cover the VII Amphibious Force. Admirals Carpender and Barbey had no aircraft carriers and thus were completely dependent upon the Allied Air Forces for air support. They pointed out that the amphibious movement to Lae would involve over forty ships, 7,800 soldiers and 3,260 sailors. This represented all suitable vessels available, with none retained in reserve. Losses to Japanese air attacks would seriously jeopardize the success of future operations, and therefore they argued that only a fighter umbrella providing continuous cover for the VII Amphibious Force would be adequate. The airmen, who were planning to use over three hundred planes in the Markham Valley parachute jump, were willing to provide air cover for Barbey’s ships over Lae itself on D Day, but argued that the movement of the convoys would be amply protected by maintaining fighter squadrons on ground alert at Dobodura and the staging airfield in the Watut Valley. The argument, a heated one, went up the chain of command to General MacArthur himself, and was finally settled by Kenney’s agreement to use a total of thirty-two planes to give as much cover as possible over the VII Amphibious Force during daylight and to maintain fighter squadrons on ground alert.

There remained the problem of fighter control. One fighter control unit was stationed at Dobodura, and another at the staging field in the Watut Valley, but radar coverage over the area was far from complete. Japanese aircraft from Wewak or Madang could fly south of the mountains to Lae, or from New Britain across Dampier and Vitiaz Straits, and radar would not pick them up until they were almost over Lae. And as Brigadier General Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s G-2, pointed out, Allied experience at New Georgia showed that the Japanese air reaction might be violent. An Australian airman suggested that the difficulty be alleviated by posting a radar-equipped destroyer between Lae and Finschhafen. This was accepted, and the U.S. destroyer Reid, which was part of Barbey’s antisubmarine screen, was selected as picket with orders to steam in Vitiaz Strait some forty-five miles southeast of Finschhafen.

Markham Valley plans called for the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, flying from Port Moresby in C-47’s, to jump onto Nadzab airstrip on the north bank of the Markham River on 5 September, the day after the amphibious assault Nadzab was not believed to be occupied by the Japanese, but this seizure would block the valley and prevent the enemy’s sending troops overland from Wewak. Once captured, Nadzab airstrip was to be quickly readied for airplanes by the 503rd and by a force of Australian engineers and pioneers. The Australians were to paddle in boats from the staging airfield in the Watut Valley down the Watut River to Nadzab—a distance of about thirty-two air miles, but actually twice that far for anything but crows and airplanes. Then one brigade of the 7th Australian Division, plus engineers and antiaircraft units, having been flown to the Watut Valley previously, would fly in. The next brigade would come in directly by air from Port Moresby. Once adequate strength had been assembled, the 7th Australian Division would march eastward down the Markham River against Lae, and at the same time the 9th Australian Division would drive westward from the landing beaches.

Seizure of Nadzab would have a threefold effect: it would provide Allied forces with one more air base with which to increase their control over the Huon Peninsula, the straits, and western New Britain; it would provide a base for the 7th Division’s eastward march against Lae; and an Allied force at Nadzab could forestall any attempt by the Japanese to reinforce Lae from Wewak by marching through the Ramu and Markham Valleys.

The Enemy

Japanese strategic intentions were not changed by the invasion of the Trobriands or of Nassau Bay. In August 1943 Generals Imamura and Adachi were still resolved to hold Lae and Salamaua as parts of the outer defenses of Wewak and Madang, and were still planning to move into Bena Bena south of the Ramu Valley.7 There were about ten thousand men in the Lae-Salamaua area, with somewhat more than half of these defending Salamaua. Many of the ten thousand, reported the Japanese after the war, were sick. Some estimates run as high as 50 percent. At Lae, General Shoge, temporarily detached from his post as infantry group commander of the 41st Division, led a force consisting of a naval guard unit, elements of the 21st, 102nd, and 115th Infantry Regiments, and artillerymen and engineers. In addition to defending Lae, Shoge was responsible for patrolling up the Markham River and for protecting the southern approaches to Finschhafen on the east coast of the Huon Peninsula.

In the months following the Bismarck Sea disaster the supply systems for Lae and Salamaua had almost broken down. The Allied aerial blockade of the Huon Peninsula prevented the use of large ships to carry supplies forward to Lae. Until June, six submarines helped carry supplies, but then the number was cut to three and the bulk of supplies had to be carried on barges. Supply of the ten thousand men for the five months preceding September would have required 150 barge-loads per month, while 200 more barges were needed for transport of reinforcements and ammunition. But there were far too few barges. Only 40, for example, were making the run to Lae from the staging base at Tuluvu on the north shore of Cape Gloucester. The sea and the tides in Dampier Strait damaged many, and several fell victim to Allied aircraft and to nocturnal PT’s which, like their sister boats in the Solomons, prowled the barge lanes.

Imperial General Headquarters, meanwhile, had paid heed to Imamura’s request for more planes. On 27 July Imperial Headquarters ordered the 4th Air Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Kumaichi Teramoto, from the Netherlands Indies to the Southeast Area. Teramoto’s army would include the 7th Air Division, the 14th Air Brigade, some miscellaneous squadrons, and the 6th Air Division, which was already based at Wewak.
The 4th Air Army headquarters arrived at Rabaul on 6 August, whereupon Imamura ordered Teramoto and his planes to proceed to Wewak with the mission of escorting convoys, destroying Allied planes and ships, and co-operating with the 18th Army. The move was made at once; the Allies were well aware that the Japanese were building up strength on the four Wewak airfields.
Allied Air and Naval Preparations

Increases in Air Strength

The increases in Allied strength that had been promised to the Southwest Pacific Area at the Pacific Military Conference in March had been coming through practically on schedule.8 P-47’s of the 348th Fighter Group began arriving in Australia in June, and before the end of July the whole group had been deployed to New Guinea. The 475th Fighter Group, flying P-38’s, was ready for combat by the middle of the next month.
Bomber strength, too, was increasing. Newly arrived B-24’s of the 380th Heavy Bombardment Group went into action from Darwin, Australia, in mid-July. One of the 380th’s first large-scale operations was a spectacular raid on the oil center at Balikpapan, Borneo, on 13 August, a feat that required a 1,200-mile round trip. Port Moresby saw the arrival of new B-25’s of the 345th Medium Bombardment Group in July. And the C-47’s were also increasing in number. By September the 54th Troop Carrier Wing could boast fourteen full squadrons of transport planes.

By the end of August the Southwest Pacific Area had on hand nearly all its authorized plane strength—197 heavy bombers and 598 fighters. Keeping this number in flying condition, however, was next to impossible. Many of the planes were old, and with the air forces constantly in action there were always battle casualties. Kenney was always short of manpower; he could never obtain enough replacement pilots to keep all his new and veteran squadrons up to strength, a condition that was probably duplicated in every active theater.

Operations: The first important action of Kenney’s

Allied Air Forces in preparation for the Markham Valley-Huon Peninsula operation was the development of the staging fields in the Watut Valley and in the Ramu-Markham trough. Ever since the Buna campaign Kenney had been anxious for a good fighter field near Lae to use in covering the invasion. He hoped to fly troops into an existing emergency strip and seize it, as he had done during the Buna campaign. Kokoda and Wau had been surveyed but found unsuitable.

Then in May an aviation engineer officer, with orders to find a field farther forward than Wau, trekked from the Bulolo Valley almost to Salamaua, found nothing suitable, and thereupon backtracked and went down the Watut River where he found and recommended an emergency landing strip at Marilinan.

But Marilinan was not perfect; it was feared the September rains would render its clay too muddy to be usable. At this point General Wurtsmith of the V Fighter Command took a hand. Looking over the ground himself, he picked a site at Tsili Tsili four miles down the Watut River from Marilinan. Kenney and Whitehead agreed with his choice.
Meanwhile Kenney and Herring arranged to build the second staging field, using a few Australian troops and native labor, at Bena Bena south of the Ramu Valley. This emergency strip had long served as a New Guinea Force patrol base, and the Japanese at this time were hoping to capture it eventually. The Allies decided to build a grass strip suitable for fighters at Bena Bena (C-47’s carrying supplies to the Australian patrols had been using Bena Bena for some time), and to burn off the grass in fashion so obvious as to distract the enemy’s attention from Tsili Tsili.

In June and July, C-47’s flew Australian troops and the U.S. 871st Airborne Engineer Battalion to Marilinan. The troops moved down the river to Tsili Tsili, cleared the strips, and C-47’s flew in specially designed bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment. Some gear, including trucks sawed in half so they could be loaded into C-47’s, was also flown to Tsili Tsili, where the trucks were welded together. Two strips at Tsili Tsili were soon ready, and by mid-August three thousand troops, including a fighter squadron, were based there. Japanese aircraft failed to molest the Allies until the fields were all built; they raided Tsili Tsili on 15 and 16 August without doing much damage and thereafter left it alone.

While General Kenney had liked the prospects of Tsili Tsili from a technical point of view, he had felt that Tsili Tsili had an unfortunate sound. He therefore officially directed that the base be given the more attractive name of Marilinan.
During this period the Fifth Air Force had been supporting the Allied diversionary attacks against Salamaua. Nearly every day of July saw some form of air attack against the Lae-Salamaua area. Sorties during the month totaled 400 by B-25’s, 100 by B-24’s, 45 by RAAF Bostons, 35 by A-20’s, 30 by B-17’s, and 7 by B-26’s. The Japanese supply point at Madang was also raided during the period 20-23 July by B-25’s and heavy bombers.

But these raids were secondary to Kenney’s main air effort, which was directed against Wewak. Aware of the increase in Japanese air strength at Wewak, and lacking enough strength to hit both Wewak and Rabaul, Kenney had decided to concentrate against Wewak rather than Rabaul up to the day of the landing at Lae, and to rely in part on the weather for protection against Rabaul based lanes. There were too many Japanese fighter planes at Wewak, however, for Kenney to risk sending unescorted bombers there. Raids against Wewak had to await completion of the Marilinan staging field, which would extend the range of Allied fighters as far as Wewak. Meanwhile Kenney ordered his bombers not to go as far as Wewak, thus leading the Japanese to believe that Wewak lay beyond bomber range and to send planes there with a false sense of security.

On 13 August photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes showed a total of 199 Japanese airplanes on the four fields at Wewak. The 4th Air Army was now due for a surprise. Marilinan was ready by midmonth and so was the Fifth Air Force. General Whitehead had four bombardment groups with enough range to hit Wewak from Port Moresby—two heavy groups with 64 planes in commission and two medium groups totaling 58 B-25’s. With Marilinan in commission the bombers would have fighter protection all the way.

Heavy and medium bombers and fighters struck the four Wewak fields on 17 August and achieved excellent results. Taking the Japanese by surprise, they caught most of the enemy planes on the ground. Next day they were back in strength, and the Wewak offensive continued throughout the rest of August. The planes struck at Hansa Bay and Alexishafen during the same period.

Damage inflicted by these raids was heavy, though less than estimated at the time. Kenney’s headquarters claimed over 200 Japanese aircraft destroyed on the ground, a claim that Army Air Forces headquarters scaled down to 175. Postwar Japanese reports, however, give losses as about half what the Allies initially claimed. But despite the efforts of Imamura and Teramoto, strength of the 4th Air Army thereafter averaged but 100 planes, and “the prospect of the New Guinea operation [was] much gloomier.”

The Allied Naval Forces, which had not played a decisive part in the Buna campaign because it lacked enough ships and because hydrographic information on the waters of New Guinea’s north coast was almost nonexistent, was also taking a hand. PT boats based at Morobe were stalking the enemy barge routes at night and making the transport of men and munitions to Lae increasingly difficult The Fifth Air Force’s successful strike against Wewak encouraged Admiral Carpender to send warships as far up the coast as Finschhafen. Thus on 22 August four destroyers under Captain Jesse H. Carter left Milne Bay, stopped at Buna to discuss air cover and obtain target information, and sailed for Finschhafen.

Starting at 0121, 23 August, Carter’s ships bombarded Finschhafen with 540 rounds of 5-inch shells and returned safely to Milne Bay. This operation was small in itself, but it was significant because this was the first time Allied warships had ventured so far up the New Guinea coast.

During the first three days of September Allied planes executed preparatory bombardments in support of the Lae invasion. They launched heavy attacks against airfields, supply points, and shipping lanes on 1 September, the same day on which medium and heavy bombers raided Alexishafen and Madang. Next day B-25’s and P-38’s delivered a low-level attack against Wewak. Gasmata and Borgen Bay on New Britain, and Lae itself, were struck on 3 September, and eleven nocturnal RAAF Catalinas raided Rabaul.

The Salamaua Attack: 1July-12 September1943

During July and August, while the various headquarters of the Southwest Pacific Area were preparing plans and assembling troops and supplies for the Lae-Markham Valley invasions, and while the air and naval forces were attacking Japanese aircraft, bases, and lines of communication, the troops in front of Salamaua were carrying out their part of the plan by the diversionary attack against that port. Starting from the arc-shaped positions they held in early July, the 3rd Australian Division and the MacKechnie Force, soon joined by the remainder of the 162nd Infantry, fought their way forward until by the end of August they were closing in on the town and airfield of Salamaua.

At first the reinforced 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, fighting on the right of the 3rd Australian Division, was the only American unit present, but this force was enlarged in July, after the capture of Bitoi Ridge, when other elements of the 41st Division were attached to the 3rd Australian Division. This attachment came about because more U.S. infantrymen and artillerymen were needed to secure the Tambu Bay-Dot Inlet area northwest of Nassau Bay, and because a supply base for Australians and Americans in the combat area was required.

Consequently the Coane Force, commanded by Brigadier General Ralph W. Coane who was also 41st Division artillery commander, was organized during the second week in July.[N9-13] The MacKechnie Force, then fighting forward from Bitoi Ridge, was not a part of the Coane Force. Some units assigned to the Coane Force were already in the Nassau Bay area; others soon came up from Morobe.[N9-14]

[N9-13: It consisted at first of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 162nd Infantry; the 162nd Infantry Cannon Company; 3rd Platoon, Antitank Company, 162nd Infantry; C Battery, 209th Coast Artillery Battalion; A Battery, 218th Field Artillery Battalion; A Company, 116th Medical Battalion; A and D Companies, 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, 2nd Engineer Special Brigade; A Company, Papuan Infantry Battalion; a Combined Operational Service Command detachment; Troop D, 2/6th Royal Australian Artillery Regiment; and signal and quartermaster troops.]

[N9-14: Problems involving command over the mixed Australian-American units appear to have been additional factors in the decision to create the Coane Force rather than to turn all American troops over to Colonel MacKechnie. The MacKechnie Force was attached to the 3rd Australian Division, but Major General Horace H. Fuller, commanding the 41st U.S. Division, retained control over the American troops at the actual beachhead. Thus, as he put it later, Colonel MacKechnie was “placed in the unenviable position of trying to obey two masters” who kept giving him conflicting orders. The impossibility of obeying them both finally led MacKechnie to request relief as commanding officer of the 162nd. He was reassigned as Coane Force S-3, and later as liaison officer with the 3rd Australian Division, but returned to command the 162nd on the dissolution of the Coane Force. See Ltr, Colonel MacKechnie to General Smith, Chief of Mil Hist, 2 Nov 53, no sub, OCMH.]

Both Coane and MacKechnie Forces fought under command of General Savige, commanding the 3rd Australian Division, and after Savige’s headquarters was relieved on 24 August by Headquarters, 5th Australian Division, under command of Major General E. J. Milford, the Americans served under Milford. At the same time Colonel William D. Jackson, 41st Division artillery executive officer, was appointed as Commander, Royal Artillery, of the 3rd and then the 5th Australian Divisions. Jackson, using a composite Australian and American staff, served as artillery commander until the end of hostilities in that area.

On 17 July the Coane Force moved forward from Nassau Bay, and by the end of the next day had secured the southern headland of Tambu Bay, where a supply base was set up. Starting on 20 July, the Americans launched a series of attacks with strong artillery support which resulted on 13 August in the capture of the high ground—Roosevelt Ridge, Scout Ridge, and Mount Tambu —overlooking Tambu Bay and Dot Inlet. On 12 August the Coane Force was dissolved and the entire 162nd Infantry reverted to Colonel MacKechnie’s control.

At the same time the Australians pressed forward so that by the first week in September they had reached the Francisco River, which flows in an west-east direction just south of the Salamaua airfield. All advances were made up and down precipitous ridges varying from eight hundred to three thousand feet in height. With characteristic skill the Japanese had established strong defensive positions on the ridges; there were many automatic weapons emplacements, with earth-and-log pillboxes predominating, that gave each other mutual support with interlocking bands of fire. Trenches and tunnels connected the emplacements.

Early September saw Japanese resistance slackening. On 11 September the Australians and the 162nd Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon crossed the rain-swollen Francisco River and by the end of 12 September the airfield, the town, and the entire isthmus, which had been held by the Japanese for eighteen months, was back in Allied hands.

The cost was not cheap. On 29 June there were 2,554 men in the 162nd Infantry. By 12 September battle casualties and disease had reduced the regiment to 1,763 men. One hundred and two had been killed, 447 wounded. The 162nd estimated it had killed 1,272 Japanese and reported the capture of 6 prisoners.

The Japanese had lost Salamaua after a stiff fight and the very strength of their defense had played into Allied hands, for of the ten thousand enemy soldiers in the Lae-Salamaua area, the majority had been moved to Salamaua. The Allied ruse had succeeded.

Lae: The Seaborne Invasion; The Landing

The unit slated to invade Lae, Major General G. F. Wootten’s 9th Australian Division, embarked on the ships of Admiral Barbey’s Task Force 76 at Milne Bay on 1 September. Next day Barbey’s ships sailed to Buna and to Morobe, where they were joined by fifty-seven landing craft of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade that had assembled there in the latter part of August. On the night of 3-4 September the armada set out for Lae, eighty miles distant; it arrived at the landing beaches east of Lae at sunrise of 4 September.

At 0618, eighteen minutes after the sun rose, five destroyers fired a ten-minute bombardment on the beaches. Then sixteen landing craft from the APD’s started for the beaches carrying the assault waves. At 0631 the 20th Australian Infantry Brigade began going ashore at Red Beach, near Bulu Plantation and some eighteen miles east of Lae. This landing was unopposed. Two minutes later troops of the 26th Australian Infantry Brigade landed at Yellow Beach, eighteen miles east of Lae, east of the Bulu River. A small group of Japanese on Yellow Beach ran away at the approach of the Australians. Scouts of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade landed with the Australian infantry.

Fifteen minutes after the assault waves beached, LCI’s pushed their bows onto the beaches and put more riflemen ashore. They were followed by LCT’s and LST’s. All assault troops had landed by 0830, and by 1030 fifteen hundred tons of supplies had been landed. By the end of the day the beachheads were secure, 2,400 more Australians had landed, and the 26th Brigade and the 2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion had crossed the Buso and begun the advance westward against Lae.

There was no resistance on the ground, but Japanese aircraft attempted to break up the invasion. About 0700, before fighter cover had arrived, a few two-engine bombers with fighter escort attacked Task Force 76 and damaged two LCI’s. Imamura dispatched eighty planes from Rabaul to attack Barbey but these were delayed by the fog over New Britain that Kenney’s weathermen had predicted. The picket destroyer Reid’s radar located them over Gasmata in the afternoon just as Task Force 76 was making ready to sail for Milne Bay. The Reid vectored out forty P-38’s and twenty P-47’s which intercepted the flight and broke it up. Some planes got through, however, and attacked a group of six LST’s off Cape Ward Hunt. They damaged two and killed over a hundred Australian soldiers and American sailors. The Japanese did not attack the jammed landing beaches at this time, but returned in the evening to blow up an ammunition dump, damage two beached LCI’s, and kill two men.[N9-16]

[N9-16] They claimed to have sunk 14 transports,2 barges, 1 PT boat, 3 destroyers, and to have shot down 38 planes.]

The Advance Westward

Once the assault troops had landed control of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade elements—thirteen hundred men of a reinforced boat company, a boat control section, a shore battalion, a medical detachment, scouts, and a headquarters detachment—passed from Admiral Barbey to General Wootten. A salvage boat, ten LCVP’s, and two additional LCVP’s mounting machine guns for support of landings remained at Red Beach. Eventually, twenty-one LCM’s and twenty-one LCVP’s were sent to Red Beach. Because of breakdowns, these replacements were necessary if ten craft of each type were to be kept in operation. All these craft were used to support the 9th Division’s march against Lae.
The 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion, once landed, pushed east from Bulu Plantation and secured the east flank by seizing Hopoi. The reserve 24th Infantry Brigade landed on schedule on the night of 5-6 September, and at daylight started west behind the 26th Brigade. On 6 September, after a ten-mile march, the 26th Brigade met its first opposition at the Bunga River.

The 24th Brigade advanced along the coast while the 26th Brigade moved some distance inland in an effort to get behind Lae and cut off the enemy garrison.

The 24th’s advance was rendered difficult, not so much by the enemy as by the terrain. The heavy September rains flooded the creeks and turned the trails into deep mud that was virtually impassable for vehicles. Fortunately the boats of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade were available to ferry supplies by water to coastal dumps and enable the advance to continue. The leading Australian battalions reached the Busu (not to be confused with the Buso farther east) on the morning of 8 September. This swollen river, five feet deep and sixty feet wide at the mouth, and flowing at twelve knots, was a severe obstacle in itself, and the west bank was held by the Japanese.

Patrols attempted to force a crossing on the morning of 9 September but the combination of Japanese bullets and the swift current forced them back. In the late afternoon elements of four rifle companies got across in rubber boats and by wading and swimming. Several men were drowned and many weapons lost in this act of gallantry, but the four companies seized a bridgehead on the west bank and held it against enemy counterattacks.

Meanwhile the troops on the east bank loaded men, weapons, and ammunition onto the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade’s landing craft and sent them to the west bank. For the next sixty hours, the landing craft plied back and forth until the entire 24th Brigade had been transferred to the west bank. Rain, mist, and darkness helped hide the boats from the Japanese, who tried to hit them with artillery, machine guns, and rifles. During the same period a box girder bridge was moved in pieces by landing craft from Bulu Plantation to the mouth of the Burep River, then laboriously hauled inland to the 26th Brigade’s zone over a jeep track built by the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade. The bridge was installed over the Busu under enemy fire on the morning of the 14th. The 26th Brigade crossed over that night. Both brigades were then on the west bank of the Busu and were ready to resume the advance against Lae and effect a junction with the troops of the 7th Australian Division that were advancing east out of Nadzab.

Nadzab: The Airborne Invasion; The Jump

Capture of Nadzab had been spectacularly effected on 5 September. This mission, assigned to Colonel Kenneth H. Kinsler’s 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, was coupled with the additional mission of preparing the airstrip for C-47’s carrying Major General George A. Vasey’s 7th Australian Division from Marilinan and Port Moresby.
Reveille for the men of the 503rd sounded early at Port Moresby on the morning of 5 September. The weather promised to be fair, although bad flying weather over the Owen Stanleys delayed take off until 0825. New Guinea Force had prepared its plans flexibly so that the seaborne invasion on 4 September would not be slowed or altered if any threat of bad weather on 5 September delayed the parachute jump, but Kenney’s weathermen had forecast accurately.

2/4th Australian Field Regiment which was to jump with its 25-pounder guns reached the airfield two hours before take off. There they put on parachutes and equipment. The 54th Troop Carrier Wing had ninety-six C-47’s ready, and the troops boarded these fifteen minutes before take-off time.

The first C-47 roared down the runway at 0825; by 0840 all transports were aloft. They crossed the Owen Stanleys, then organized into three battalion flights abreast, with each flight in six-plane elements in step-up right echelon.

An hour later bombers, fighters, and weather planes joined the formation over Marilinan, on time to the minute. All together 302 aircraft from eight different fields were involved. The air armada then flew down the Watut Valley, swung to the right over the Markham River, and headed for Nadzab. The C-47’s dropped from 3,000 feet to 400-500 feet. The parachutists had stood in their planes and checked their equipment over Marilinan, and twelve minutes later they formed by the plane doors ready to jump.
In the lead six squadrons of B-25 strafers with eight .50-caliber machine guns in their noses and six parachute fragmentation bombs in their bays worked over the Nadzab field. Six A-20’s laid smoke after the last bomb had exploded. Then came the C-47’s, closely covered by fighters.

The paratroopers began jumping from the three columns of C-47’s onto separate jump areas about 1020. Eighty-one C-47’s carrying the 503rd were emptied in four and one-half minutes. All men of the 503rd but one, who fainted while getting ready, left the planes. Two men were killed instantly when their chutes failed to open, and a third landed in a tree, fell sixty feet to the ground, and died. Thirty-three men were injured. There was no opposition from the enemy, either on the ground or in the air. Once they reached the ground, the 503rd battalions laboriously moved through high kunai grass from landing grounds to assembly areas.

Five B-17’s carrying supply parachutes stayed over Nadzab all day. They dropped a total of fifteen tons of supplies on ground panel signals laid by the 503rd. The Australian artillerymen and their guns parachuted down in the afternoon. The whole splendid sight was witnessed by Generals MacArthur and Kenney from what Kenney called a “brass hat” flight of three B-17’s high above. MacArthur was in one, Kenney in another, and the third B-17 was there to provide added fire power in case the Japanese turned up.

The 503rd’s 1st Battalion seized the Nadzab airstrip and began to prepare it to receive C-47’s. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions blocked the approaches from the north and east. As soon as the parachutists had begun landing, the Australian units that had come down the Watut River—the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, the 2/6th Field Company, and one company of the Papuan Infantry Battalion—began landing on the north bank of the Markham. They made contact with the 503rd in late afternoon and worked through the night in preparing the airstrip. The next morning the first C-47 arrived. It brought in advance elements of the U.S. 871st Airborne Engineer Battalion.

Twenty-four hours later C-47’s brought in General Vasey’s 7th Division headquarters and part of the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade Group from Marilinan, where they had staged from Port Moresby. Thereafter the transports flew the Australian infantry and the American engineers directly from Port Moresby. By 10 September the well-timed, smoothly run operation had proceeded fast enough that 7th Division troops at Nadzab were able to relieve the 503rd of its defensive missions. Enough American engineers had arrived to take over construction of new airstrips.

The 503rd’s only contact with the enemy came in mid-September when the 3rd Battalion ran into a Japanese column at Yalu, east of Nadzab. The parachute regiment was withdrawn on 17 September. It had lost 3 men killed jumping, 8 men killed by enemy action, 33 injured jumping, 12 wounded by the enemy, and 26 sick.
This was, comparatively, small cost for the seizure of a major airbase with a parachute jump. Nadzab paid rich dividends. Within two weeks the engineers had completed two parallel airstrips six thousand feet long and had started six others.

The Advance Against Lae

The 25th Australian Infantry Brigade

Group moved eastward out of Nadzab toward Lae on 10 September while General Wootten’s 9th Division troops were forcing a crossing over the Busu River east of Lae. The Markham Valley narrows near Lae, with the Atzera Range on the northeast and the wide river on the southwest. A prewar road in the Atzera foothills connected Nadzab with Lae, and a rough trail on the other side of the Atzeras paralleled this road from Lae to Yalu, where it intersected the road. Thus while some troops blocked the trail at Yalu, and the 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion guarded the line of communications, the 2/25th Australian Infantry Battalion advanced down the road and part of the 2/2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion moved down the north bank of the river.
When a small group of Japanese offered resistance to the advance at Jensen’s Plantation, toward the lower end of the valley, the 2/25th Battalion drove it back and on 14 September captured Heath’s Plantation farther on. The 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion then took over and pushed on toward Lae. By now the Australians had come within range of Japanese 75-mm. guns and found the going harder. But an assault the next day cleared Edward’s Plantation and enemy resistance ended.

The advance elements of the 25th Brigade entered Lae from the west the next morning, 16 September. In the afternoon the 24th Brigade, which had advanced from the east and captured Malahang Airdrome on 15 September, pushed into Lae and made contact with the 25th Brigade. Lae had fallen easily and speedily. The Japanese had vanished.
The Japanese Evacuation

Throughout July and August the Salamaua Japanese were reinforced at Lae’s expense, but were continually forced back. On 24 August General Nakano, reflecting the importance which his superior had attached to Salamaua, addressed his troops thus: “Holding Salamaua is the Division’s responsibility. This position is our last defense line, and we will withdraw no further. If we are unable to hold, we will die fighting. I will burn our Divisional flag and even the patients will rise to fight in close combat. No one will be taken a prisoner.

Imperial Headquarters, however, did not order a suicidal last stand. Nakano was ordered to hold out as long as possible, but to withdraw if he could not hold Salamaua. The Australian landing between Lae and Finschhafen and the 503rd’s seizure of Nadzab, coupled with Allied air and PT boat activity in the Huon Gulf and the straits, caused General Adachi on 8 September to order Nakano to abandon Salamaua and pull back to Lae. Nakano’s hospital patients and artillery had already been sent to Lae, and on 11 September withdrawal of the main body began.

Meanwhile, after considerable discussion Imperial Headquarters, Imamura, and Adachi abandoned their plans to take Bena Bena and Mount HaGen Adachi saw that the Allied operations at Salamaua, Nadzab, and Lae threatened to cut off the 51st Division. He now decided that he would have to withdraw from Lae, but determined to hold the Finisterre Range, the Ramu Valley, and Finschhafen. Therefore he ordered Nakano and Shoge to withdraw overland from Lae to the north coast of the Huon Peninsula, and directed the 20th Division to move from Madang to Finschhafen and to dispatch a regiment to the Ramu Valley to assist the 51st.

Thus the Allied troops pushing toward both Lae and Salamaua in early September met only delaying forces. The Salamaua garrison had assembled at Lae by the 14th, two days after the first echelon of the Lae garrison had started north. Another echelon left that day, and the last slipped out on the 15th. The day before, General Vasey had learned from a captured document and from interrogation of a prisoner that the Japanese were leaving Lae. He dispatched troops northward to reinforce the 2/4th Australian Independent Company, which was operating in the wilds north of Lae, but the Japanese eluded their pursuers.

It was a band of retreating enemy that the 3rd Battalion, 503rd, encountered at Yalu, and when Australian forces rushed there the Japanese hastily altered their route to avoid interception.

Once out of Lae, the 51st Division and the Lae naval garrison executed one of the difficult overland marches that were to characterize so many future Japanese operations in New Guinea. There was little fighting, but Australian patrols harried the retreat. The Japanese moved north out of Lae and avoided Nadzab and the obvious Markham-Ramu trough that Adachi had originally planned to use for the withdrawal. They moved in a generally north-northeasterly direction, crossed the Busu River by means of a rough-hewn bridge on 20-22 September, and skirted the west ends of the Rawlinson Range and Cromwell Mountains in the vicinity of Mount Salawaket about 25 September.
They had started with food for ten days, but this was exhausted by the time they reached Salawaket. Thereafter they lived by looting native gardens and by eating roots and grasses. Dysentery and malaria made their appearance, but as there were plenty of suppressive drugs the malaria rate was low.

The 51st Division had already abandoned most of its heavy equipment before the retreat. Along the way mountain artillerymen, unable to drag their guns over the precipitous slopes, were forced to abandon them. Many soldiers threw away their rifles. This was in strong contrast to the behavior of the 1st Battalion, 20th Division, which had reinforced the 51st Division at Salamaua. The commander, a Major Shintani, had threatened death to any soldier who abandoned his arms. Shintani died on the road, but his battalion rigorously adhered to his orders. Each soldier who completed the march carried his rifle and his helmet.

By mid-October the troops reached the north coast of the Huon Peninsula. The Army troops went to Kiari, naval personnel to nearby Sio. Slightly over 9,000 men had left Lae; 600 were march casualties. Nearly 5,000 soldiers arrived at Kiari, and some 1,500 sailors went to Lio. Many others were taken to the hospital at Madang. The defense of Lae-Salamaua and the subsequent retreat cost almost 2,600 lives.

Strategic Reconsiderations; The Japanese Pull Back

The fall of Lae and Salamaua, coming hard on the heels of defeat in the central Solomons, had a profound effect upon Japanese strategic plans, an effect that went far beyond the immediate importance of Lae and Salamaua. Although the twin losses of Guadalcanal and Buna were severe, Imperial General Headquarters had not regarded these as irretrievable. It had continued to prepare plans for offensives in the Southeast Area. Now the war leaders in Tokyo reassessed the situation and determined on a drastic retrenchment.

The fall of the central Solomons and of Lae-Salamaua closely followed the loss of Attu and the evacuation of Kiska in the Aleutians, and came at a time when Imperial Headquarters entertained well-justified fears about the opening of an Allied offensive through the Central Pacific. The Japanese in September decided that they were overextended.

They determined to withdraw their perimeter in order to set up a defense line that would hold back the Allies while they themselves marshaled their strength for decisive battle. This perimeter would be strongly manned and fortified. It was hoped that the defensive preparations behind it would be completed by the early part of 1944.
So Imperial Headquarters drew its main perimeter line from western New Guinea through the Carolines to the Marianas. This was “the absolute national defense line to be held by all means.” The Southeast Area, including Rabaul, once the focus of such great but elusive hopes for victory, was now on the outpost line.

But the war was far from over for MacArthur’s and Halsey’s troops. General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka were no longer counted on to win decisively, but they were ordered to hold out as long as possible, and so delay the Allied advance. To strengthen the Southeast Area, Imperial Headquarters in September ordered the 17th Division from Shanghai to Rabaul “to reinforce the troops manning the forward wall.

Imamura and Kusaka determined to hold Bougainville, whose defenses they had been trying to build up during the long fight on New Georgia, to develop and strengthen Madang and Wewak, to develop the transport system connecting the main bases of the Southeast Area, and to hold Dampier and Vitiaz Straits. Control of these straits had been essential to nearly all Japanese movements to New Guinea and, as before, the Japanese were resolved to hold them in order to block any Allied westward advance.

To this end Imamura, who kept the 38th Division under his control to defend Rabaul, had previously dispatched the reinforced 65th Brigade to Tuluvu on the north coast of Cape Gloucester with orders to develop a shipping point there and to maintain the airfield. On 5 September he sent Major General Iwao Matsuda to Tuluvu to take command of the 65th Brigade, some elements of the 51st Division, and the 4th Shipping Group.
To Matsuda’s responsibility for handling shipping he added that of defending the coasts of western New Britain.

On the New Guinea side of the straits, the Japanese regarded Finschhafen as the key defensive position. Possessed of two good harbors—Finschhafen itself and Langemak Bay—and a small airfield, it had long been used as a barge staging point. In early August Adachi had been concerned about a possible attack against Finschhafen, but he did not have enough troops to strengthen its small garrison substantially while the 41st Division was defending Wewak, the 51st Division was defending the Lae-Salamaua area, and the 20th Division was working on the Madang-Lae road. He did, however, send the 80th Infantry and one battalion of the 21st Field Artillery Regiment of the 20th Division from Madang to Finschhafen. By the end of August Major General Eizo Yamada, commanding the 1st Shipping Group and the combat troops at Finschhafen, had about one thousand men.

When the 9th Australian Division landed east of Lae on 5 September, Adachi foresaw the danger, to Finschhafen. He suspended construction of the Madang-Lae road, which was now a twenty-foot-wide all-weather road running along the coast from Madang to Bogadjim, thence over the Finisterre Range at a defile named Kankirei and into the Ramu Valley to a point ten miles north of Dumpu. This decision freed the 20th Division for combat duty.

Adachi ordered a small force of the 20th Division, under Major General Masutaro Nakai, the divisional infantry commander, to advance to Kaiapit, which is on the uplands near the sources of the Markham and Ramu Rivers. The move was intended to keep the Allies from advancing through the Ramu Valley, over Kankirei to the coast, and on against Madang and Wewak, and was also to help cover the retreat of the 51st Division from Lae up the trough to Madang. When Adachi decided not to use the Markham and Ramu Valleys for the retreat he ordered Nakai north to hold the Kankirei defile.
Adachi ordered the main body of the 20th Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Shigeru Kitagiri, to march to Finschhafen. The division departed Bogadjim on 10 September on its march of nearly two hundred miles, but was still far from its destination when the Allies struck the next blow.
Allied Decisions

General MacArthur’s ELKTON III called for the capture of Finschhafen as a step toward gaining control of Vitiaz and Dampier Straits. The plan had set the tentative date for the move against Finschhafen at six weeks after the invasion of Lae. At least two factors, however, impelled a speed-up in the timetable. The first was the quick fall of Lae and Salamaua after the landing on 4 September. The second was the 20th Division’s move toward Finschhafen. But before orders could be sent out for the capture of Finschhafen, it was necessary to consider this operation in relation to the larger problems involved in capturing Madang, an operation considered necessary to protect the left flank during the seizure of Cape Gloucester. Seizure of Finschhafen, Madang, and Cape Gloucester would of course give physical control of both sides of the straits to the Allies.

Capture of Madang was bound to be a large operation. Allied intelligence estimated that in late August a total of 55,000 Japanese held the regions between Lae and Wewak. At this time General Blarney, in a letter to MacArthur, held that the Japanese would exert every effort to defend the Markham and Ramu Valleys, Bogadjim (near the defile into the Ramu), Lae, Salamaua, and Finschhafen. Capture of Madang, which had been assigned to his New Guinea Force, would require as preliminary conditions complete air and naval superiority, support by the VII Amphibious Force, physical possession of Lae, the Markham Valley, Salamaua, and Finschhafen, and the neutralization of the Japanese in western New Britain.

Blarney set forth three steps to be followed after the capture of Lae. The first was the capture of Finschhafen by a seaborne assault Blarney recommended as the second step seizure of an intermediate objective between Finschhafen and Bogadjim, because 256 miles of water separated Lae from Bogadjim, 178 separated Finschhafen and Bogadjim, and these were long distances to travel with a flank exposed. The third and final step would be the capture of Madang by a combination of airborne invasion and amphibious assault coupled with pressure from troops advancing northwestward out of the Ramu Valley. To avoid exposing the right flank, he strongly urged capturing Cape Gloucester (which had been assigned to the ALAMO Force) before taking Madang. This would be feasible, he argued, because Madang was so much farther from Finschhafen than was Cape Gloucester.

These proposals received close study at the advanced echelon of GHQ, which had moved to Port Moresby during the planning for Lae and the Markham Valley. General Chamberlin looked on them as generally sound. Regarding Blamey’s concern over control of Cape Gloucester as well as the coasts of the Huon Peninsula, however, he pointed out to General Sutherland that “G-3 believes that a physical occupation of areas has little bearing on the control of Vitiaz Strait but considers that airfields strategically placed which cover the water areas north of Vitiaz Strait are the controlling considerations.”

As to the intermediate objective between Finschhafen and Bogadjim, which Chamberlin placed at Saidor (with a harbor and prewar airfield) on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula, he felt that little would be gained by seizing it as well as Madang. On the other hand it appeared that Saidor might prove a satisfactory substitute for Madang.

Timing of operations would be tricky, largely because the VII Amphibious Force lacked enough ships to conduct two operations at once. It would be committed to operations on the Huon Peninsula until mid-November. Therefore the Cape Gloucester invasion could not take place until about 1 December, but the attack against the north coast of the Huon Peninsula would also have to be launched about the same time if the New Britain offensive was to be protected effectively. For these reasons Chamberlin recommended deferring the decision on whether to move to New Britain before or after invading the north coast of the Huon Peninsula. For this latter operation, he proposed two alternatives: seizure of a prewar airfield at Dumpu in the Ramu Valley without operating on the coast at all, or seizure of the Saidor airfield without operating in the Ramu Valley.
The questions were threshed out at a conference at Port Moresby on 3 September.

MacArthur, Sutherland, Chamberlin, Kenney, Whitehead, Blamey, Carpender, and others attended. Blarney spoke strongly in favor of his recommendations. Kenney urged a deep penetration of the Ramu Valley all the way to Hansa Bay, which lies between Madang and Wewak. After Hansa Bay, he recommended, the advance could turn southward in co-ordination with the Cape Gloucester attack. Admiral Carpender wanted an operation somewhere between Madang and Saidor to precede Cape Gloucester. He received some support in his view from MacArthur, who asserted the necessity for seizing an area between Finschhafen and Madang before capturing Cape Gloucester, so as to assure the safe movement of supplies to support the latter operation. After a good deal of discussion, opinion crystallized in favor of covering the move to Gloucester by seizing the line Dumpu-Saidor. Dumpu would be seized at once by airborne and overland advances, and would then be used to cover simultaneous moves against Saidor and Gloucester. These moves, Chamberlin estimated on 3 September, would take place about1 November at the earliest, but 1 December was more probable.

Thus it was that on 15 September MacArthur ordered Blamey’s New Guinea Force, supported by Kenney’s forces, to seize Kaiapit at the head of the Markham Valley and Dumpu about thirty miles south of Bogadjim. Two days later he ordered the New Guinea Force, with naval support, to capture Finschhafen. It would serve as an advanced air base, and Allied Naval Forces, basing light naval craft there, would use it to cut off the Japanese from Cape Gloucester and Saidor. The attack on Madang was postponed.
Advance Through the Ramu Valley

With his forces converging on Lae from east and west General Blarney completed plans for Kaiapit and Dumpu. Tactically the initial phases of the task appeared fairly simple; patrols had reported the area between Nadzab and the Leron River, a tributary of the Markham, to be free of the enemy.

Logistics would present the greatest difficulty. No overland line of communications existed, and until roads were built all supplies for the advancing troops would have to be flown in. This fact limited the attacking force to one division (the 7th) of but two brigade groups. The 2/6th Australian Independent Company began the drive in September when Kenney’s transport planes landed it on a prewar airstrip in the Markham Valley some thirty miles northwest of Nadzab near the Leron River. The 2/6th then made its way eight miles up the river to Kaiapit, after a sharp encounter on 19 September, captured the village from a small group of Japanese, and held it against their repeated counterattacks. Two days later the Kaiapit strip saw the arrival, after a flight up from Nadzab, of the 21st and 25th Brigade Groups of General Vasey’s 7th Australian Division.

At the month’s end the 21st Brigade, followed by the 25th, left Kaiapit and entered the Ramu Valley. By 6 October the 21st was in possession of Dumpu, where 7th Division headquarters was established. The great Markham-Ramu trough had fallen with an ease that the Allies had not expected, an ease brought about by the hasty Japanese decision not to retreat through the trough.

Behind the lines engineers set to work building a truck highway from Lae to Nadzab along the prewar road, but rain fell during forty-six of the final sixty days of the project and it was December before the task was finally finished and large amounts of supplies could be sent to Nadzab. Nadzab and the other sites in the Markham and Ramu Valleys received all their supplies and equipment by airlift during the period the road was under construction.

By the end of December Allied Air Forces possessed three first-class air bases in full-scale operation in the Markham and Ramu Valleys: one at Nadzab, one at Lae, and one at the juncture of the Gusap and Ramu Rivers. The last site was selected in preference to Kaiapit, which proved too swampy and malarious for extensive development. Dumpu served as a staging field for fighter planes.

After establishing strong positions at Dumpu, the 7th Australian Division continued its part in seizing the Huon Peninsula. Marching north-northwest from Dumpu, it attacked Nakai’s positions in the defiles of the Finisterres. The defiles were secured in February after almost three months of the most arduous kind of fighting. Nakai retreated toward Madang while Vasey’s division broke out to the coast east of Madang.
The Coastal Advance


Vasey’s operations through the Ramu Valley were co-ordinated with those of Wootten’s 9th Australian Division, which was operating on the coasts of the Huon Peninsula in a series of operations that began with Finschhafen. Before leaving Milne Bay for Lae, Wootten had been alerted to the possibility that he might have to send a brigade to Finschhafen.

Thus GHQ’s decision on 17 September to invade Finschhafen at once was no surprise to the veteran Australian commander. Admiral Barbey had just time enough, and no more, to assemble 8 LST’s, 16 LCI’s, 10 destroyers, and 4 APD’s for the invasion on 22 September, but “Uncle Dan” was now an old amphibious hand and he met the deadline. The LST’s loaded at Buna, and the whole task group assembled in the harbor at Lae on 21 September. General Wootten meanwhile had selected the 20th Infantry Brigade Group of his division to make the landing, and had ordered the 22nd Infantry Battalion to advance east along the coast to threaten Langemak Bay, just south of Finschhafen.

Elements of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade had been attached to Wootten, and these units also made ready. No close air support was planned for the invasion, but in the days preceding 22 September B-24’s and B-25’s bombed the Gasmata airfield on the south coast of New Britain. Daytime A-20’s and B-25’s struck at Japanese lines of communication to Finschhafen, and PT’s took over the work at night.

Troops of the 20th Brigade boarded their convoy on the afternoon of 21 September. The force included, besides the Australians and Barbey’s American sailors, one boat company, half the shore battalion of the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and medical and signal troops, or 575 men, 10 LCM’s, and 15 LCVP’s. The 22nd Battalion marched out of Lae en route to Langemak Bay on the 21st, and the same day the amphibious force sailed for Finschhafen, eighty-two miles distant.

The beach selected for the landing, designated Scarlet, lay six miles north of Finschhafen at the mouth of the Song River. It was nine hundred yards long (north to south), thirty feet wide, and was marked by coral headlands to the north and south. Destroyers bombarded Scarlet Beach on the morning of 22 September, and during darkness, at 0445, the first Australian assault wave touched down.

Coxswains had difficulty finding the right beach in the dark with the result that most landing craft carrying the first two waves lost direction and landed in a small cove south of Scarlet Beach. First light aided the LCI’s carrying the third wave; they landed at the right place. The waves that landed at the cove met some scattered but ineffective fire from enemy posts in the fringe of the jungle. The third wave met better organized opposition from log-and-earth pillboxes, but by 0930 all resistance had been overcome, all troops and supplies were ashore, and the landing craft retracted.

The Japanese survivors retired to rising ground about a half mile inland and some sharp fighting ensued before the 2/17th Battalion was in complete possession of the beachhead. The 2/13 Battalion meanwhile swung left (south) toward the village of Heldsbach, which was just north of the Finschhafen airstrip.

General Yamada had posted only a small part of his force at Scarlet Beach. He was keeping the rest of his 4,000-man command at Hanisch Harbor on the south coast of the peninsula and on Satelberg, a 3,240-foot peak which was about six miles west of Scarlet Beach, dominated the entire coastal region, and overlooked both Finschhafen and Langemak Bay. When General Adachi received news of the Allied landing he ordered Yamada to concentrate his force at Satelberg and attack at once. This attack was designed to hold or destroy the Australians pending the arrival of General Kitagiri’s 20th Division. By 21 September the 20th Division, advancing overland and hauling its heavy matériel on barges, had reached Gali, one hundred miles from Finschhafen; it expected to arrive at Finschhafen on 10 October. Adachi ordered Kitagiri to hurry.

Admiral Barbey’s retiring ships offered a tempting target to Japanese airmen, but the 7th Air Division, under orders to cover a Wewak-bound convoy, hesitated to leave it unprotected. The 4th Air Army headquarters ended this indecision by ordering the 7th out against Barbey, but bad weather over central New Guinea kept the Army planes on the ground. Those of the naval 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul went up and fiercely attacked the amphibious force on 22 and 24 September. But the vigilant destroyer Reid had given warning and Allied fighters, the ships’ own antiaircraft, and “good luck in addition to good ship maneuvering” kept the ships from harm.

At the beachhead the American engineers built roads and dumps and unloaded naval craft. The larger engineer craft carried additional supplies from Lae to Scarlet Beach, while the LCVP’s hauled supplies at night from Scarlet Beach to the Australians who were pushing south toward Finschhafen.

The 20th Brigade continued its move toward Finschhafen on the 23rd. It captured Heldsbach, the airfield, and part of the shore of the harbor before meeting stiff resistance at the Bumi River, where three hundred enemy sailors and one company of the 2nd Battalion, 238th Infantry, defended the south bank. Two companies of the 2/15th Battalion moved inland (right) to outflank the enemy, and the next morning the Australians forced their way over the river in the face of stalwart resistance. The brigade commander, who was becoming increasingly aware of the Japanese concentration at Satelberg, asked Wootten for one more battalion with which to hold Scarlet Beach while he concentrated his brigade against Finschhafen. Wootten assented.

The 2/43rd Battalion landed at Scarlet Beach on the night of 29-30 September to relieve the 2/17th, and the latter moved out at once for Finschhafen. Following air and artillery bombardment, the three Australian battalions—the 2/13th, 2/15th, and 2/17th—attacked on 1 October, fought all day, and overwhelmed the defenders. The next morning they occupied the village and harbor of Finschhafen and made contact south of Langemak Bay with patrols of the 22nd Battalion, which had advanced overland from Lae.
The Counterattack

To gain complete control of the New Guinea side of Vitiaz Strait, Generals MacArthur and Blarney had ordered that the capture of Finschhafen be followed by an advance along the coast to Sio, fifty land miles distant. But the advance could not be undertaken until the Japanese were driven from their dominating positions at Satelberg and on Wareo spur, a lower spur which lay north of the Song River from Satelberg.
On 26 September Yamada had launched an unsuccessful attack with the 80th Infantry against the Australian beachhead. After Finschhafen fell on 2 October, the 20th Brigade moved back to Scarlet Beach in preparation for an assault against Satelberg. Two battalions attacked but met stout resistance.

When General Wootten’s headquarters and the 24th Brigade arrived, Wootten decided that all signs indicated the Japanese would counterattack immediately, before he could complete his preparations for advancing to Sio. He decided to go on the defensive for the time being.

Meanwhile the 20th Division was on its way; advance elements totaling 2,354 men had reached Sio by 30 September. General Kitagiri decided to advance by an inland route rather than use the coastal track to Satelberg. Like so many other Japanese generals in similar circumstances during World War II, he decided not to concentrate all his forces before attacking but ordered his units to attack the Australians upon arriving. Japanese tactical doctrine warns of the dangers of such piecemeal commitment but Japanese generals frequently aided the Allied cause by putting aside their doctrine in favor of pell-mell, piecemeal attack.

For his main attack against Scarlet Beach Kitagiri decided to drive eastward from Satelberg with most of his forces while a small detachment aboard four landing craft attempted an amphibious assault But his division was no better at safeguarding important documents than was any other Japanese unit. On 15 October General Wootten received a captured Japanese order which warned him to expect a two-regiment attack from Satelberg, coupled with a seaborne assault The Australians made ready.
Next day the 9th Division, though suffering some local reverses, repulsed the 20th’s attack from Satelberg. At 0300, 17 October, Japanese planes bombed the Allies, whereupon 155 men of the 10th Company, 79th Infantry, attempted to land from their four craft. Two barges were sunk, one departed in haste, and the other reached shore in the vicinity of a .50-caliber machine gun position manned by Private Nathan Van Noy, Jr., of the 532nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and one other American engineer.
As the enemy soldiers disembarked they hurled grenades, one of which wounded Van Noy before he opened fire. But Van Noy held his fire until the Japanese were visible, then opened up and killed about thirty of them. He died of his wounds, and for his gallant devotion was awarded the Medal of Honor.30 Though the Japanese claim that the few men who reached the shore wrought great damage, in actuality they were all quickly killed.

Later in the morning came another major attack from Satelberg. Wootten, who had no reserve brigade, asked for the 26th and Barbey’s ships transported it to Scarlet Beach on 20 October. The Japanese attacks continued through 25 October, but all failed. As his food supplies were exhausted, Kitagiri suspended the attacks and regrouped for another try. The Australians, losing 49 dead in these actions, reported killing 679 of the enemy.
General Adachi, who had often been in and out of Salamaua during the fighting there, traveled from Madang via Kiari and Sio to Satelberg. He arrived on 31 October, and stayed for four days. During this period Kitagiri made some hopeful estimates on the success of future, more gradual offensives.
Satelberg to Sio

But Wootten was now ready to assume the offensive. By 17 November one more brigade, the 4th, had arrived to hold the beachhead while the three infantry brigades of the 9th Division attacked. Meanwhile work on the airstrip and advanced naval base at Finschhafen had gone forward so quickly that PT boats from Finschhafen were now harrying enemy sea communications at night in consort with PBY’s (“Black Cats”). With the support of tanks and artillery, and rocket-equipped LCVP’s lying offshore, the 9th Division fought a major action starting on 17 November. By 8 December it had captured Satelberg and Wareo spur and was ready to push up the coast to Sio, whence the 20th Division was retreating on orders from General Imamura himself.

Wootten’s men advanced slowly but steadily against the retreating enemy, supported all the while by the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade craft.31 The Australians found many sick, wounded, and dead Japanese who had fallen by the way as the weakened 20th Division, which numbered 12,526 men on 10 September and only 6,949 men by December, laboriously marched along. On 15 January 1944 the 9th Division entered Sio, on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula.

Fighting on the peninsula was not yet over, but the main strategic objectives—the airfield sites and the coast of Vitiaz Strait—were now in Allied hands. When the Lae-Nadzab road and the airfields were completed, the Allies could control the air over the straits and bring a heavier weight of metal to bear on Japanese bases to the north and to the west.

In the Nassau Bay-Lae-Finschhafen operation the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade lost twenty-one dead, ninety-four wounded, and sixty evacuated sick. On the pursuit to Sio four LCVP’s were lost to enemy action, four more to surf and reefs.
SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Bougainville (12); Invasion

World War Two: Papuan Campaign(19); Final Offensive / Victory