General Basil M. Morris (1888-1975) was the Australian commander at Port Moresby at the start of the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Trail, and played an important part in delaying the Japanese advance long enough for substantial reinforcements to reach Papua. Morris entered the Australian army before the First World War, serving in the Royal Australian Artillery from 1 December 1910.
During the First World War he fought on the Western Front (from February 1916 until the end of the war). From February 1916 to November 1917 he served with the 55th battery of the 36th (Australian) Heavy Artillery Group, then from November 1917 to September 1918 as a staff captain at the headquarters of the 5th Divisional Artillery. He received his own command in September 1918 when he was promoted to major and given command of the 114th Howitzer Battery. This unit fought at Hargicourt, Bellicourt and in the advance to the Hindenburg line. During this period Morris was mentioned three times in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Between the wars Morris remained in the army, becoming director of supplies, transport, movements and quartering in 1937, and commander of the Australian Overseas Base in November 1939. In December he was promoted to temporary brigadier, and assigned to the Australian Imperial Force. In this role he spent the first half of 1940 in Jerusalem, before becoming Australian military liaison officer, Bombay.
In May 1941, with the threat of war with Japan growing ever closer, Morris was recalled to Australia, and appointed commander of the 8th Military District (Papua), with his headquarters at Port Moresby. At first this post was something of a backwater, but after the early Japanese conquests Moore found himself on the front line, as commander of New Guinea Force.
On 25 June 1942 he formed Maroubra Force to defend the Kokoda Trail, the one man wide mountain track that led from Port Moresby to Buna on the north coast of Papua. At this point Maroubra Force contained the 39th Battalion, 30th Brigade (minus one company) and a 300 strong Papuan battalion. On 7 July Company B of the 39th Battalion left Port Moresby on foot, heading for Kokoda, arriving on 12 July. Nine days later, on the night of 21-22 July the first Japanese troops landed at Buna, and began to advance south along the trail. General MacArthur, by then Allied Commander-in-Chief in the South West Pacific, ordered Morris to reinforce Maroubra Force as quickly as possible.
The first clash between Japanese and Australian troops on the Kokoda Trail came on 23 July near Awala. The outnumbered Australians were forced to retreat to Wairopi, then to Kokoda (26 July) and Deniki (same day). Before Kokoda fell Morris had been able to fly a small number of reinforcements into its airstrip, and on 28 July Maroubra Force even managed to mount a short-lived counterattack, recapturing Kokoda for one day.
Morris continued to move reinforcements up the trail, and by 7 August all five companies of the 49th Battalion had reached the front line, giving Maroubra Force 480 men. By now Morris’s time in command was drawing to an end. On 9 August Major General Sydney F. Rowell, the commander of the Australian I Corps, was appointed to command New Guinea Force, and he took up his new post on 18 August.
After his replacement by Rowell, Morris remained at Port Moresby as commander of the New Guinea Lines of Communication Area. From December he also became head of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, which in February 1942 replaced the civil administration of Papua and North East New Guinea. In his new role Morris was responsible for maintaining law and order and for providing the local labour that was essential in all of the Allied campaigns to come. He had a difficult role, running a front line military district so close the Australian soil, and was criticised by some for the speed with which he conscripted men for military service, and for failing to prevent the looting of Port Moresby after the first air raids in February 1942, but in each case these complaints were dismissed.
Morris retired from the army in 1946, and in the following year was awarded the C.B.E. He made two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the Legislative Assembly (1947 and 1950), and then retired to enjoy country pursuits. He died on 5 April 1975.
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