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Uncrossable Runway: the Battle of Milne Bay
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"It was a bastard of a place. It rained solidly for weeks and the mud was waist deep in parts and if you fell, you drowned.”
- Angus Suthers, Captain 2/12 Battalion

Australian troops wading through
thick mud at Milne Bay after the
Japanese attack

Allied troops arrived in Milne Bay at the eastern tip of New Guinea in June 1942, consisting of an Australian militia battalion and US airfield construction teams. Surrounded by mountains and often shrouded in low clouds, the area receives 200 inches of rain a year. This “tropical paradise” was rife with malaria, scrub typhus, leeches and parasites, and the constant rain insured everything was always wet. This would take a heavy toll on the troops.

On the 21st of July, the first of three airstrips built at Milne Bay was ready, completed with steel Marsden matting over the crushed coral base. Any plane leaving the matting would sink into stinking mud. The very next day, the first RAAF P-40 Kittyhawks of No. 75 and No. 76 Squadron arrived.

The Japanese first attacked on August 4th with four Mitsubishi Zero fighters and one D3A Val dive-bomber. One Kittyhawk was destroyed on the ground, while 8 Kittyhawks from No. 76 Squadron shot down the Val. The remaining Zero's withdrew taking with them valuable information of the allied presence.

One of the runways at Milne Bay is
guarded by a 40mm Bofors anti
aircraft gun while a Kittyhawk is
approaching for landing

The Japanese returned on the 27th of August. Eight Val dive bombers and seven Zero fighters would make a desperate attack on the number 1 airstrip with the support of a flight of Betty Bombers. However, a patrol of Kittyhawks was able to fend off this attack, with the loss of just one Kittyhawk. The Japanese lost five planes.

Meanwhile, the IJN had landed their troops and was pushing the Australians back along the coast road. Casualties were heavy on both sides as sickness and exhaustion kicked inl. The Australians committed only small forces to delay the Japanese and prepared to defend Milne Bay. The construction details spent this time readying the cleared area of the 3rd strip to become a thousand yard wide killing zone. This was no hurried position, the American engineers had bulldozed all the topsoil to the western side of the runway, and formed a continuous line of defensive works armed with Vickers machine guns. These were backed up by American half-tracks with their heavy machine-guns, mortars, and 25-pounder artillery to the rear. The flanks of this position were secured by multiple Bren guns.

A Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tank stuck
in the mud and abandoned near Milne Bay

The early hours of August 31st would decide the outcome of the battle for Milne Bay. At 3am, the Japanese began an all-out night attack, making at least three “banzai” charges across mined runway of the No.3 strip. Tracer fire lit up the battlefield so well that the signals officer Lieutenant Ernie Bain of the 25th battalion claimed he was able to read his map by the light.

Each Japanese attack was broken up by heavy defensive fire, the onrushing Japanese were mowed down in swathes. Commander Hayashi, the CO of the the Japanese force at Milne Bay, would later be found amongst his men on the field. Shortly before dawn, a single bugle was heard signalling the end of the attack.

All this was achieved with the odds stacked in favour of the Japanese. The IJN had complete control of the sea. They could dictate when and where the battle would take place, but the Japanese forces ended up charging against machine guns over the 3rd airstrip. Most of the Australians were were not ready, trained, or prepared for the terrain and the fighting methods required. However the one thing the Australians had that tipped the balance in their favour, were the Kittyhawks. The RAAF’s 75th and 76th squadrons tireless, relentless and at times reckless sacrifice proved the deciding factor.

Aaron “anglomanii” Lentz

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