Battle of the Kokoda Trail, 23 July-13 November 1942

Preliminaries
The Japanese Attack
The Australians Attack

The battle of the Kokoda Trail of 23 July-13 November 1942 saw the Japanese army reach further south than at any other time during the Second World War, in an attempt to capture Port Moresby, but also marked the point at which Japan’s resources became too stretched to support further offensive operations, and ended as a clear Australian victory.

Preliminaries

The Japanese had hoped to capture Port Moresby from the sea, and the amphibious assault force got as far as the eastern tip of New Guinea, but after the drawn battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), the Japanese turned back. At that point they had expected to return by sea, but the defeat at Midway meant that they could no longer afford to dispatch their remaining aircraft carriers to such a remote area.

The Japanese still saw Port Moresby as essential to their security, partly because it would allow them to threaten the main Australian cities of the east coast, but also because it could be used as a base to attack their own stronghold at Rabaul. The only alternative to an amphibious invasion would be to march across the Papuan Peninsula, at the eastern end of New Guinea, but this route was blocked by the massive mountains of the Owen Stanley Range.

The best route across the Owen Stanley Range was the Kokoda Trail. This mountain track led from Buna on the north coast, to Kokoda, on the northern slopes of the mountains, and then along Eora Creek to Templeton’s Crossing, before crossing the mountains over The Gap, a 7,000 foot high six mile long mountain pass. The trail then ran down the precipitous southern flanks of the mountains and on to Port Moresby. For most of the way the trail was a single file jungle track, running across jagged mountains, and surrounded by some of the most difficult jungle terrain. It would be one of the worst environments to be fought over during the entire war.

Map showing Kokoda Trail, Papua
Map showing Kokoda Trail, Papua

The Americans and Australians were also aware of the importance of Buna and the Kokoda Trail. On 10 July a small part of Australians and Americans had flow to Buna to search for suitable sites for airfields. On 15 July plans had been drawn up for Operation Providence, the Allied occupation of Buna. The first of four waves of Allied troops was to leave for Buna on 31 July, and they were expected to arrive on 10-12 August.

Even before this, on 25 June General Basil M. Morris, the Australian commander at Port Moresby, had created Maroubra Force to defend the vital airfield at Kokoda. While Operation Providence would have to be abandoned, Maroubra Force played a vital role in delaying the first Japanese advance along the Kokoda Trail.

The Japanese Attack

The first Japanese troops to reach the Kokoda Trail were a reconnaissance party, from the elite 15th Independent Engineer Regiment. It had been decided to sent this regiment to Papua at the end of June, and on 1 July the commander of the regiment, Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama, was ordered to land at Buna, advance to Kokoda and then reconnoitre the mountain pass and the trail to Port Moresby.

Kokoda Trail - The Japanese advance
Kokoda Trail -
The Japanese advance

Yokoyama’s force was around 3,100 strong (1,800 Japanese infantry, 100 naval labourers and 1,200 Rabaul natives). It landed close to Buna on the night of 21-22 July. The naval force moved to Buna, while the Army picked Giruwa as its base. That night Yokoyama dispatched an advance guard of 900 men, under Lt. Col. Hatsuo Tsukamoto, with orders to advance day and night to the mountains. 

This small force was faced by an even smaller Australian force, made up of Company B of the 39th Infantry Battalion and the Papuan Infantry Battalion, at best just over 400 strong. The first clash came at Awala, on 23 July. The Australians then retreated to Wairopi, retreating across the wire rope bridge that gave the village its name on 24 July, destroying the bridge behind them. 

As soon as the Japanese landed, General MacArthur, the allied Commander-in-Chief in the south west Pacific, ordered General Basil Morris, the Australian commander at Port Moresby, to rush reinforcements to Kokoda. Unfortunately Morris only had one transport aircraft capable of landing on the small strip at Kokoda. Lt. Colonel William T. Owen, the commander of the 39th Battalion, was flown in on 24 July, and thirty men arrived in two flights on 26 July, but by the end of that day Owen had been forced to retreat from Kokoda to Deniki.

Without the airfield the only way for reinforcements to reach the front was by foot. Twice the Australians were able to recapture the airfield (28-29 July and 10-12 August), but on neither occasion was there time for aircraft to reach Kokoda. During this period the remaining four companies of the 39th Battalion reached Deniki by foot, giving Owen a total of 480 men.

The fighting around Deniki and Kokoda ended on 13 August, when Colonel Yokoyama attacked with 1,500 men. Outnumbered by three-to-one, the Australians had to pull back more than five miles to the south. After this success Yokoyama began to dig in around Kokoda, waiting for the arrival of reinforcements.

On 31 July the Japanese had decided to mount a combined land and sea assault on Port Moresby. General Horii, with the South Seas Detachment and the Yazawa Detachment, was to land at Buna and advance along the Kokoda Trail. At the same time the Kawaguchi Detachment, supported by the 8th Fleet, would capture Samarai Island, south east of Papua, and then attack Port Moresby from the sea. This attack was to begin on 7 August.

The naval element of this plan had to be abandoned after the Americans landed on Guadalcanal. The Japanese 8th Fleet needed all of its naval infantry in the Solomons, and could only spare one battalion for New Guinea. This battalion was then diverted from Samarai Island to Milne Bay, where the Japanese suffered their first land defeat of the war.

This just left General Horii and the overland attack on Port Moresby. Most of the main body of his force landed at Basabua on 18 August, for once without being attacked by Allied aircraft, and the rest followed on 21 August.

The main Japanese offensive began on 26 August. On that day Horii had three strong battalions in the front line, and that figure soon rose to five. The Australians only had the 39th and 53rd Battalions, 30th Brigade on the northern side of the mountains, although two more were on the way (2/14 and 2/16 Battalions, 21st Brigade). The Australians were outnumbered, and were repeatedly outflanked. By 5 September they had been forced to retreat back through the Gap, allowing the Japanese onto the southern slopes of the Owen Stanley Range.

The Japanese advance continued on the southern side of the mountains. The Australians held a position on Efogi Spur from 6-8 September, and were then forced to retreat once again, after the Japanese attacked nine weakened companies with five battalions.

Two new Australian brigades, the 16th and 25th, were dispatched to the front on 9 September, the day after the Japanese attacked the Efogi position. The front line was now at Ioribaiwa, and here the Australians would finally meet strong reinforcements coming up from Port Moresby. The ridge was already defended by the 2/1 Pioneer Battalion and the 3rd Battalion, 14th Brigade. On 10-11 September they were joined by the retreating 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions, while the first two battalions from the 25th Brigade reached Ioribaiwa on 14 September. The new battalions attempted to outflank the Japanese soon after arriving, but this attack ended in failure, and the Australians were forced to pull back once again, taking up a position on the Imita Range, a day’s march from Ioribaiwa.

Australian Soldiers on the Kokoda Trail, 1942
Australian Soldiers on the Kokoda Trail, 1942

Despite their successes, the Japanese were now in a difficult position. The Australians were close to their supply bases and to reinforcements, while the Japanese were now separated from their supplies by the worst section of the Kokoda Trail, and Allied air power was making it increasingly difficult for supplies to use the trail. Even so, the Japanese appeared to be poised to make a final assault on Port Moresby, thirty miles from their front line, but events elsewhere in the Pacific meant that that attack would never be made.  

By late August the Japanese high command realised that it faced a serious crisis on Guadalcanal, and no longer had the strength to eject the Americans from that island and attack towards Port Moresby at the same time. On 29 August General Hyakutake ordered General Horii to stop his advance once he had reached the southern foothills of the Owen Stanley Mountains, and two days later the Imperial Headquarters confirmed the order. It was hoped that this would be only be a temporary pause, and that the advance would be resumed once Guadalcanal had been cleared, but on the night of 13-14 September the Japanese suffered a major defeat at Bloody Ridge.

On 18 September Horii’s orders were changed again. He was now to concentrate his efforts on holding the Buna-Gona beachhead, although the position south of the Owen Stanley Range was to be held for as long as possible. General Horii responded to these instructions by moving half of the force at Ioribaiwa back to the coast – of the five battalions that took part in the last advance, only two battalions and two companies from a third remained south of the mountains.

The Australians Attack

While the Japanese weakened their line at Ioribaiwa, the Australians prepared to launch their counterattack. This attack was to be part of a three-pronged assault on the Japanese beachhead at Buna and Gona. While the Australians advanced along the Kokoda Trail, the Americans would cross the Owen Stanley Range further south, heading for Jaure, while a third force would advance along the coast from Milne Bay.

Kokoda Trail - The Australian advance
Kokoda Trail -
The Australian advance

The Australian attack was to be launched by the 25th Brigade, under the overall command of Lt. Gen Edmund F. Herring, the commander of Advance New Guinea Force. On 26 September the 25th Brigade attacked, and much to their surprise the Japanese almost immediately abandoned the elaborate defensive positions they had constructed on Ioribaiwa Ridge and began to retreat back up the Kokoda Trail towards the Gap, and the northern side of the Owen Stanley Mountains.

The Japanese made their main stand at Templeton’s Crossing, where the trail crossed Eora Creek, and along the line of the creek, which joined the Mambare River just east of Kokoda. They reached Templeton’s Crossing on 8 October, and entrenched on the high ground on either side of the entrance to the Eora Creek Gorge. The 2nd Battalion, 144th Infantry, held this position for a week, before conducting a fighting retreat along the Eora Creek. The Australian advance sped up after the 25th Brigade was relieved by the 16th Brigade, but the Japanese did not finally abandon the Eora Creek positions until 29 October.

Australian 25pdr in the jungle
Australian 25pdr in the jungle

On 2 November the 25th Brigade finally liberated Kokoda, and its vital airfield. Within a few days the airfield had been lengthened to allow Douglas C-47s to use it, and at a stroke all of the Australian supply problems disappeared.

The final Japanese defensive positions were at Oivi and Gorari, east of Kokoda. Here the Japanese had built their defences into the Oivi ridge, where they had embedded artillery and supplies for a week. By the start of November the position at Oivi was defended by a battalion from the 41st Infantry, with orders to hold out for long enough to allow the 144th Infantry to retreat across the Kumusi River and back to the coast. On battalion ffom the 144th Infantry was left at Gorari, to protect the Oivi position from being outflanked.

The Australian attack (16th Brigade and 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion) began on 4 November, and soon discovered that the Japanese position was secure against frontal assaults. Accordingly the Australians began to work their way around the southern flank of the Japanese line, and on 8 November the leading elements of the brigade made contact with the Japanese rearguard south east of Gorari. On 9 November the 25th Brigade joined in the attack at Gorari, and Colonel Yazawa, commanding the Japanese force, decided to evacuate the position at Oivi. Their only way out was to head north, through the jungle, to reach the Kumusi River, which they would then follow downstream to the coast. On the night of 9-10 November the force from Oivi made its escape, but the orderly retreat that had been hoped for quickly became chaotic. One victim of this was General Horii, who on 9 November happened to be visiting the front. On the night of 12-13 November the raft he was using to cross the Kumusi broke apart, and he drowned.

The retreat from Oivi was almost the end of the battle for the Kokoda Trail. On 12 November the Japanese defenders of Gorari were overwhelmed, suffering 500 casualties. On the following day the Japanese rearguard which had been covering the river crossing was also wiped out, and that night the Australians completed their first bridge across the river, at Wairopi. The Allied attack on the Buna-Gona beachhead was about to begin.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 November 2008), Battle of the Kokoda Trail, 23 July-13 November 1942 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_kokoda_trail.html

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