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Nations at war
Brune, Peter. A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003
ix + 691 pages
Acknowledgments; maps; photos; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Some books succeed despite quirks and imperfections, and Aussie Peter Brune's newest work falls into that category. In fact, it succeeds exceedingly well despite some irritating flaws. Right off the bat, then, let's deal with the imperfections.
To begin with, Brune employs the annoying narrative device of lapsing into second person and present tense when describing a trip to Papua which is interspersed throughout the book. When he writes "As you fly closer to the airport...." and "The motel bus picks you up...." he's actually relating his own visit, but throughout the book he doggedly insists that "you" are the one taking the tour.
Other than General Douglas MacArthur, Yanks play a tangential role in the book, which proves all for the best given the way Brune stumbles over some bits of Americana. For example, he doesn't quite seem to grasp the differences among the terms "Congress," "Senate," and "House." He refers to the USMC as "the American Navy marines." Similarly, he refers to a National Guard unit as a "guards division."
Finally, he repeatedly returns to very nationalistic themes and seems determined to beat into the brains of readers the heroism and self-sacrifice of Australian troops in Papua. Frankly, there were few other troops in the world at that time capable of halting the Japanese offensive in the Owen Stanley mountains, butrather than letting the deeds speak for themselvesBrune's constant harping on the superiority of Australian troops eventually wears thin.
In a book of almost seven hundred pages, however, the vast majority of Brune's text is good enough that it's easy to forgive him a few excesses. Overall, the book focuses mostly on the actions of Australian fighting men and their platoons and companies at the front, paying relatively less attention to larger strategic issues (especially air and naval matters and Yank troops), but Brune repeatedly shows how the lives of the Aussies depended on the decisions and orders of MacArthur and the Australian chain of command. On the whole, this approach is quite different from most other books about the entire Papua campaign. For example, Harry Gailey's tidy and quite satisfactory MacArthur Strikes Back (which serves as a good introduction and could profitably be read before delving into Brune's book) does a good job of exploring the battles and placing them within the context of the Southwest Pacific theater as a whole. However, Gailey mostly writes from the relatively antiseptic atmosphere of rear headquarters. The excellent Australian official history volume by Dudley McCarthy is very detailed but more circumspect about some controversial aspects of the campaign. (McCarthy makes some favorable comments about General Sir Thomas Blamey, to which Brune responds bluntly in his chapter titled "Dancing to the Tune.") Brune takes the detail of the official history and to it adds stern assessments of Allied leaders, scores of verbatim recollections from Aussie soldiers, and unflinching descriptions of the conditions in which the campaign was conducted. Every page of Brune's book overflows with jungle and swamp and mud and blood, and no gory details are spared. Despite some melodrama and imperfections, A Bastard of a Place undeniably ranks as the best book ever written about the Aussie battles in Papua.
Brune begins his book with a brief history of Papua and commentary on conditions in Australia at the beginning of the war. He also writes biographical sketches of the six Aussie generals who will play critical roles in the campaign: Blamey, Sydney Rowell, Ed Herring, Tubby Allen, Cyril Clowes, and George Vasey. Next, for the units and commanders who will take center stage in Papua, he looks at Aussie operations in North Africa, Greece, and Syria. In particular, he notes how Blamey's performance left a great deal to be desired in Greece and Syria, and that only firm action from Rowell saved the day in Greece. Brune goes on to offer a few pages about MacArthur, the loss of the Philippines, and the establishment of MacArthur's headquarters in Australia.
Despite instructions to the contrary, MacArthur proceeded to appoint a purely American staff, leaving Blameycommander-in-chief of Australia's military forcesoutside the circle of power and dependent on the American general for what little influence he wielded in Allied matters. Even so, throughout 1942 the Americans fielded few ground troops in the Southwest Pacific. Although under MacArthur's command, Australia's defense would be largely in the hands of its own troops.
Right from the beginning, MacArthur demonstrated he was mostly concerned with impossibly ambitious schemes for immediately conducting a direct assault against Rabaul and other equally unlikely pipe-dreams that seem largely to have been designed to convince the planners in Washington to send him more forces. Meanwhile, he ignored intelligence reports about the likelihood of a Japanese overland offensive against Port Moresby. When the Japanese struck southward across the Owen Stanley mountains on the Kokoda Track, only a few weak Australian units stood in their way.
At this stage of the war, Japanese infantry still had a reputation as supermen. Given their victorious exploits in Malaya, the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, and elsewhere, they had certainly earned an aura of invincibility. And on the Kokoda Track the Japanese performed in the same manner. Just as in their other offensives, the Japanese seemed to be invisible, they seemed to be able to see in complete darkness, they seemed to be able to move silently across impassible terrain, and they seemed to be able to fight for weeks on a handful of rice. On the Kokoda Track, in the same conditions that laterwhen the Aussies were advancingwould be described as perfect for the defense, General Hourii's troops repeatedly forced the Australian defenders to withdraw.
In many ways the most engrossing part of the book, Brune devotes about two hundred pages to the Kokoda campaign. As with the book as a whole, his main topic involves the fighting and dying of Australian troops, and he brings these actions to life with great skill.
On the morning of 27 August 1942, with Sword and his
patrol out of contact and Simonson's soldiers having returned
to the perimeter, Potts ordered Honner to post a standing
patrol at Naro to block any enemy outflanking movement
along the western Naro track to Alola. Lieutenant Pentland
and the fittest of C Company were given the role. But
Pentland could not use the track through the front garden to
Naro as it was now reoccupied by the enemy, so he was forced
to slash a new path west of the B Company positions for that
purpose. Pentland and his patrol reached Naro unharmed.
That day, 27 August, saw the Battle of Isurava erupt in an
intensity that had not been seen previously during the
campaign. The Japanese had now virtually eliminated all posts
and standing patrols forward of the Isurava perimeter. There
could be no further attempts at holding the enemy at arms
length, or trying to mask the strength of the defences. The
battle from now on was to be a pure and simple set piece
defence of a perimeter against an enemy who outnumbered
the Australians and could use his artillery to constantly
bombard their positions. Further, Horii now deployed a
battalion around his left flank to attempt to outflank the
Australians and sever their supply line.
Having moved through the garden on the far side of the
front creek and having also penetrated the thick jungle on
the Naro flank, the Japanese were soon probing Lieutenant
French's B Company and Captain Merritt's E Company
Potts envisaged a complete relief of the 39th on
28 August; he therefore required the recovery of Pentland's
Naro patrol to allow Honner's battalion to withdraw intact,
and he ordered Honner to replace that patrol with a platoon
from C Company, 2/14th Battalion. Dickenson assigned the
task to Lieutenant Arthur Davis and his platoon.
When Davis and his patrol, guided by the intelligence
sergeant of the 39th, Buchecker, set out to follow Pentland's
route they found, upon crossing the front creek, the jungle
alive with Japanese. In the ensuing action Davis lost a soldier
killed and was then seriously wounded himself. Despite his
wound, he fought a single-handed rearguard action, sacrificing
his own life to enable the successful withdrawal of his platoon.
Buchecker was wounded in the leg, suffering a shattered thigh.
Chaplain Nobby Earl and the battalion doctor, Captain Shera,
moved out to the sound of the action, located Buchecker and
carried him in. The patrol followed them back to Isurava
pressed closely by the enemy. With Pentland now cut offin
addition to Swordthe 39th Battalion was without the fittest
men of three of its five companies. To replace E Company's
missing men Sergeant Kerslake, with the remainder of C
Company after Pentland's Naro patrol had gone, was posted in
a reserve platoon position with a counterattack role. At the
same time Sergeant Murray's platoon of A Company became
the battalion reserve, ready to rush wherever it might be
Outnumbered, unsupported, and barely sustained, the Australians under Brigadier Potts performed a remarkable job of delaying the Japanese and inflicting casualties without being defeated and destroyed. Without firsthand knowledge of conditions on the Kokoda Track, Blamey sacked Potts just as the Japanese were coming to the end of their offensive strength. Not only was the commanding officer relieved, but Blamey addressed the remnants of 21st Brigade and accused them of cowardice. Brune's indignation at Blamey's slur echoes throughout the book, and the deadly results of the commander-in-chief's words can be seen at Gona.
In the meantime, Horii's troopsout of supply, starving, and reduced to cannibalismbegan to retreat. Spurred on by MacArthur and Blamey, the Australians began to counterattack back across the Owen Stanleys toward the north coast.
Brune next turns his attention to the very interesting battle at Milne Bay at the eastern tip of Papua. Here American engineers constructed airfields critical for control of the air and sea in that area and likewise important for defending against any new amphibious operation aimed at Port Moresby. When a Japanese force landed a few miles up the coast near the end of August 1942, an Australian force under Cyril Clowes defended the airfields. Once again the Japanese took advantage of jungle and darkness to infiltrate Aussie positions and eventually advance to the edge of an unfinished strip where the main defensive positions had been sited. Here the Japanese revealed their own weakness, abandoning successful tactics and relying on reckless banzai charges into prepared positions and massed enemy firepower.
By about 3.00 a.m. on the morning of 31 August 1942, the Japanese had concentrated their assault force opposite Number 2 Strip. Private Jim Hilton, of A Company, 25th Battalion was almost opposite the enemy forming-up position:
MacKenzie, he was watching, standing-to... The next
thing he gives us a nudge with his foot and we put the
cigarette out quiet, and we were listening. No, couldn't
hear anything. And I said, 'Don't let it get to you boy,
you'll be right in the morning.' Do you know I still don't
remember whether I saw or heard something... I passed
word up the line... Company Headquarters sent a Very
light up...and she lit up all these bastards over there.
There was no chant to start with, but they did yell,
and one Jap sang out in pretty good English, 'It's no use...we're coming across!' And the RSM said, 'Pigs arse you are! Hit 'em with everything you've got!' And then
everything opened up.
The Japanese had formed up where the track and the eastern end of the strip met. Given the tremendous Australianand
American half-trackfire that now ranged at them, telling
casualties had to follow. But it was the decisive action of Lieutenant Keith Acreman that hurried their fate. During the
preceding hours of daylight, Lieutenant Ernie Bain, the 25th Battalions signal officer, had run a line to Acreman just forward of
the western or base side boundary of the strip. Keith Acreman:
And I'm there with the signaller that I purloinedhe's
still with me. And I said to him, 'Get on to the mortars
and tell them I want them to give me a ranging shot on
the road and the strip.' The next minute over came this
Bang! It hit...on our side of the ruddy strip! Lucky
it didn't go off. We all cowered there waiting for it... I
gave the order, 'Up two hundred!' That actually was
effective, the first one, and I just said, 'Gunfire!' It was
Lieutenant Aubrey Schindler, Mortar Platoon, 25th Battalion:
...We had a lot of bombs which we had brought up and
put in the back of the pits. We were sitting on them as a
matter of fact...we had very close to a hundred bombs...between the two pits... Rapid fire! And away she
goes! And then another correction...and that went on
for about an hour. And then there was a gap of about half
an hour and the second wave of Japs came in... We
received a new supply of ammunition from Battalion
If the KB Mission battleground had been brilliantly lit by
the Japanese setting fire to one of its huts four nights earlier, then
it was now the Australians who took centre stage on another
illuminated battlefield. Tracer fire from the American half-track
vehicles was answered by similar fire from the Japanese trying to
eliminate them. Flares, tracer fire and mortar explosions lit the
whole scene to the point where one Australian has claimed that
he was able to read a map by the light provided. And the
Japanese assisted the Australians in their endeavours by forming
up and attempting the impossible not once, not twice, but three
futile times. And they paid an horrendous price.
Despite what Brune refers to as "the first land defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific War," soon after this victory Clowes was reassigned to a rear area in Australia and never regained a combat command. Why? Because he had disregarded unreasonable pressure from MacArthur and Blamey in order to fight the battle in a methodical, relatively bloodless manner guaranteed to defeat the Japanese without losing the precious airfields.
If the chapters about Milne Bay highlight a weakness of the Japanese, the final chapters of the book on Gona, Buna, and Sanananda demonstrate that some Australian commanders had their own weakness, a weakness for which their troops would pay dearly. Despite a successful withdrawal and then a successful counterattack on the Kokoda Track and a resounding success at Milne Bay, the incessant pressure from MacArthur and Blamey repeatedly caused commanders on the scene at the three northern enclaves to order battalions into action piecemeal and without opportunity for reconnaissance, probing, and preparation. Time and again Australian companies arrived at the front in darkness and attacked at dawn without any idea of the terrain or Japanese dispositions. Time and again defenders in hidden bunkers slaughtered the attackers. At Gona, under a new commander who apparently believed Blamey's unjust accusations, 21st Brigade in particular was thrown away in a series of bloody assaults.
Brune essentially writes off the American forces at Buna and Sanananda, mostly ignoring their efforts and explaining that they were inexperienced, poorly trained, and not physically hardened for the job. On the other hand, most of the Australian battalions were already battle-tested and had proved themselves repeatedly in combat. Their failures Brune attributes to pressure from MacArthur and meddling from Blamey. The sad outcome is a long list of Aussie casualties, described in such a way that the reader can almost see each man collapse in the mud.
Much of this immediacy comes from a seemingly endless inventory of first-hand recollections from men who were on the spot. Brune seamlessly integrates these paragraphs onto almost every page throughout the book, adding immeasurably to the overall impact of the work. To American ears, these authentic voices sound both exotic and familiar, speaking in a wartime Aussie vernacular but communicating their nightmarish experiences with universal understated matter-of-factness.
Other than a few diary entries from a Japanese soldier at Milne Bay, Brune writes little from the enemy perspective. The flow of battle, however, makes it clear how the Japanese resisted long after most troops would have capitulated. Resigned to death in battle, the Emperor's troops seldom abandoned their positions and seldom surrendered. Snipers in trees and frond-covered holes willingly accepted inevitable death in exchange for the opportunity to pick off a few attackers. Aussies repeatedly reported overrun Japanese troops who grenaded themselves along with passing attackers. Even wounded soldiers reportedly tried to kill Australians who entered their makeshift aid stations. In the end, the Aussies took almost no prisoners.
On the 19th, only two large Japanese positions remained
facing the 18th Brigade at Sanananda. One was confronting
Lieutenant-Colonel Arnold's 2/12th Battalion and Major
Parry-Okeden's 2/9th two-company force on the Sanananda
Road, and a similar-strength force was facing the 2/10th away
to the west near Wye Point.
Early on the morning of 19 January, when his patrols
reported the enemy still in occupation of the main defence
area, Arnold ordered Captain Cook's attached A Company,
2/10th Battalion to attack along the left flank. Arnold would
later write that:
The successful attack by 'A' Company 2/10th Battalion
on the left flank was one of the outstanding features of
this phase of the campaign. The position held by the Japs
was almost entirely surrounded by water more than
shoulder deep, except for a small tongue of dry land about
15 yards wide and which was covered by enemy LMG
fire. Under cover of a mortar bombardment this company
infiltrated by twos and threes along this tongue [of land]
forming up within 25 yards of the enemy. On a given
signal they rushed forward with the bayonet under their
own hand grenade barrage. The enemy resistance
collapsed and the company advanced...killing 150 Japs
many of whom were hiding in huts and captured three
large supply dumps of medical and other stores. As in
many cases enemy wounded engaged our troops and had
to be shot. This may give rise in the future to Jap
propaganda but they are doing it so consistently that our
troops cannot take any chances.
Approximately 150 Japanese were killed in this area, in
and around part of the hospital ground. The enemy in this
position were a grotesque mixture of the dead, the dying and
those weak but willing and able enough to fight to the last.
The truth is that any enemy soldier who looked to have
even a remote opportunity to offer any form of resistance was
killed on the spot. And the few captured were usually taken
because they were physically incapable of resistance. It was
a painstaking, dangerous, filthy and callous task, but it had to
be done. And done it was.
After Cook's breakthrough had occurred, Arnold was
able to push elements of the 2/12th further along the western
side of the road to link up with B Company of the 2/9th. But
stiff enemy resistance continued on the eastern side of the road
despite a determined attack north by A and D Companies and
a similar thrust south by the 2/9th.
At first light on 20 January, Arnold's patrols found that the
Japanese were still in occupation of their reduced perimeter.
Attacks by A and D Companies of the 2/12th made only slight
gains, while a later attack put in by Cook's 2/10th Company
also failed to break the deadlock. But later that day a company
of the 2/9th linked with its 2/12th comrades on that right
flank. The 18th Brigade's envelopment of the Japanese on the
road was now virtually accomplished.
Brune closes his book with final assessments of the main Australian commanders. Potts, although banished into obscurity for the remainder of the war, he views as a hero for his performance on the Kokoda Track. Of the others, the three Brune considers most effectiveRowell, Clowes, and Allen (who tried to respond to MacArthur and Blamey with a signal reading "If you think you can do any bloody better come up here and bloody try!")were also sacked by Blamey. Vasey receives mixed reviews because he eventually succumbed to Blamey's exhortations and mishandled his forces in the endgame.
Although MacArthur's reputation has long-since been shot to pieces and Blamey has taken his share of hits (including, for example, MacArthur Strikes Back), Brune takes pains to identify the exact vector of cause and effect from MacArthur to Blamey to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of Australian soldiers. According to the author, MacArthurfor reasons of prestigeignored intelligence reports, failed to comprehend the conditions in which troops were fighting, insisted on hurried, unprepared attacks, and threatened to replace anyone who failed to act aggressively enough. Blamey, fearing for his own position, disloyal to his subordinates, and reckless with his troops, magnified those pressures. He relieved Potts just when his carefully accomplished withdrawals had brought the Kokoda campaign to its turning point; he relieved Allen just as his planning and preparations were about to pay off (with the ironic twist that his successor, Vasey, simply followed Allen's plan to recapture Kokoda); and he relieved Rowell mostly for trying to protect subordinates from Blamey's unreasonable demands.
Faced with unrelenting pressure, more than one competent Australian commander acquiesced to Blamey's insistence for repetitive, costly, tactically unsound attacks that bled the Aussie battalions white. In a particularly damning series of events, Brune shows how Blamey irresponsibly addressed the survivors of 21st Brigade and publicly accused them of cowardice and failure on the Kokoda Track, which led inexorably to their destruction when a new commanding officer who didn't trust them insisted they redeem themselves with suicidal attacks at Gona. "...[T]he Papuan campaign should be seen as arguably [Blamey's] most critical and searching test. He failed it comprehensively."
Mostly, though, this is a book about the heroism and sacrifice of Australian infantrymen. Anyone who did not already know about the qualities of these men will surely understand by the end of almost seven hundred pages that they were among the best soldiers in the world.
Brune has definitely done his homework here. If he is often blunt, seldom subtle, and sometimes scathing in his criticisms, he seems to know what he's talking about. His pages are fully footnoted and his bibliography brims with unit war diaries, private papers, correspondence, and other archival documents as well as dozens of interviews with veterans. On top of all that he includes excellent photos and plenty of useful maps.
Very highly recommended, and certainly one of the best books of the year.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Allen & Unwin.
Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 30 November 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone