The Principles of War Podcast
53rd Battalion on the Kokoda Trail
KokodaPodcast

94 – The 53rd Battalion on the Kokoda Trail

This series looks at the combat record of the 53rd Battalion on the Kokoda Trail.  It’s performance was patchy and it gained an undeservedly poor reputation.   This series will look for answers as to why they performed as they did and why they weren’t given the training, weapons and leadership that they deserved.

The 53rd Battalion was a militia battalion that fought on the Kokoda Trail in 1942.  It was a part of 30th Brigade, a militia Brigade that also had the 39th and 49th militia battalions in it.  The 39th Battalion performed brilliantly on the Kokoda Track.  What was the difference between the 39th and 53rd that lead to such a difference in performance?

What is a ‘Choco’

The 53rd Battalion was from the Citizens Militia Force, effectively the equivalent of the Army Reserve today.  Generically, CMF units were sometimes called the ‘Chocos‘ because they were expected to melt under the heat of battle.  This was given to them by members of the AIF because of their poor training and equipment.  The 53rd Battalion was also known as the ‘Greyhounds of the Owen Stanleys‘ and sometimes, simply, as ‘That Mob‘.  In fact, the Battalion History written by Frank Budden was called ‘That Mob’.  As part of the contingent that was defending Port Moresby in 1942, they were also known as the ‘Mice of Moresby‘.  This was the name given to them by Tokyo Rose, in relation to the Rats of Tobruk.  This nickname was something that the defenders of Port Moresby were quite proud of.

Was the term ‘Choco’ fair?  This series will look at the roles that the Militia played during the Second World War and highlight the critical capability it generated for Australia.

The role of the militia in the defense of Australia

This series will look at how the Battalion how performed, and how it could have performed better.  Mobilising Reserve or conscripted troops is a key role in strategic readiness and deterrence and this was not done well.  The errors committed in preparing the 53rd Battalion have been repeated many times in different wars by different countries.  The cost of these mistakes can be extremely expensive and therefore it is well worth considering how we must prepare troops for combat better in the future.

Whilst the performance of the troops was patchy at best, it is impossible to doubt their bravery.  Many soldiers of the 53rd patrolled along the Kokoda Trail, some of the worst terrain in the world to fight in, with minimal training, against a highly trained and skilled enemy with a fearsome reputation.  To do this, with minimal training, and preparation, and without the weapons required, is an incredible feat.

This series will search for lessons in training, leadership, strategic surprise, and mobilisation from the 53rd on the Kokoda Trail.

The impact of facing an enemy using the Manouvirst Approach

The mistakes that were made with the 53rd Battalion were because strategic thinking, planning and execution at the strategic level was temporally dislocated by an enemy using what today would be called the Manouvrist Approach.  The Japanese were operating within the Australian Government’s OODA Loop (observe, orientate, decide, act).  We have already looked at how this impacted the 22nd and 27th Brigades of the 8th Division.  Despite Australia declaring war on Germany in 1939 and committing 3 Divisions to overseas service, it is still not capable of defending itself.  The strategic laxity will not just affect the 53rd Battalion and the 2 Brigades of 8th Division.  We will seek to determine the real cost of this inability to get ahead of the decision-making cycle.

The mobilisation mistakes are similar to mistakes made in Korea as the United States and United Nations forces struggled to respond to the North Korean invasion and in contemporary operations, the mobilisation of Russian troops bears an uncanny resemblance to the error mobilisation efforts of those earlier operations.

Terrain Analysis for the Kokoda Trail

Terrain is the canvas on which we paint our masterpieces and this battle is dominated by terrain considerations.  

We look at the concept of ‘the gap’.  This was a mythical place somewhere on the Kokoda Track that could be held by 1 section with guns that would create an impenetrable defensive location blocking the Koka Track.   

Time in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.  There was little recon conducted and those who did know, the ANGAU troops who had extensive experience with the Kokoda Track, were never consulted about ‘The Gap’!

The Japanese had a better understanding of the terrain and bought engineers as a part of their force composition.  This assisted in their mobility.

The decivise terrain was Kokoda.  There was an airfield there and because of the difficulty in providing logistics support, the airfield was critical.  This is why once it was lost, it’s reclamation became the main effort for Maroubra Force until it was clear that there were only the resources available to conduct a fighting withdrawal.

Aerial resupply on the Kokoda Trail.
Myola, Papua, October 1942. A United States Army Air Force (USAAF) aircraft carries out a supply dropping mission to the 2/4th and 2/6th Field Ambulances (not in view) which are camped on the plain below. Myola is an area of dry lakes located on a wide plateau at an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level. Although clouds often close in around midday, the area provides an ideal site for the re-supply by air of Australian forces advancing along the Kokoda Trail. In carrying out their missions, many USAAF airmen tended to drop the supplies from too great a height, causing them to drift off into the surrounding jungle-covered hills from where they were never recovered. By contrast, RAAF airmen always carried out their drops at low level, leading to full recovery of the supplies.

Command and Control of Maroubra Force

LT COL Owen is the initial commander of Maroubra Force but is KIA north of Kokoda on the 29 July.

MAJ Allan Cameron takes over from him.  He is a staff officer from 30th Brigade.

LT COL Ralph Honner takes over from MAJ Cameron.  He is to be the new commander of the 39th Battalion.  He is in command of Maroubra Force for just 3 days.

BRIG Porter – Brigade Commander of the 30th Brigade takes command from LT COL Honner.  He is in command for just 3 days.

BRIG Potts – Brigade takes over on the 23rd of August.  He is the Commander of the 21st Brigade, an AIF Brigade.

From the 29th of July to the 23rd of August, just 26 days, there are 4 new commanders of Maroubra Force.  This makes it difficult for the commander to gain an appreciation of the terrain, the enemy, and the logistics, and then develop and execute a plan.  They are required to do this all the while being pushed back by a very aggressive enemy.

 

LT COL William Owen, DSC, CO of the 39th Battalion, KIA 29 July, 1942.
VX45223 Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) William Taylor Owen DSC (Distinguished Service Cross), 39th Battalion, of Leongatha, Vic. He enlisted on 8 July 1940 at Caulfield. Lt Col Owen was taking part in close fighting with the Japanese on the Kokoda trail, in the most forward position at the most threatened point in Seekamp’s sector, on the very lip of the plateau. He was throwing grenades when a bullet struck him. Lt Col Owen died on 29 July 1942, in Papua, aged 37 years. He was the first Australian to receive the American Distinguished Service Cross; it was gazetted on 23 November 1944.
LT COL Allan Cameron, when he was CO of the 3rd Battalion.
Lieutenant Colonel Allan Cameron (standing centre), commander, 3rd Battalion, AMF, briefs some of his men before they set out on a patrol from Menari, Kokoda Track, in October 1942. This patrol captured one of the first Japanese soldiers taken prisoner by the Australians. AWM 027010

 

Ralph Honner, CO 39th Battalion
Ralph Honner, Derna, Libya ,31 January, 1941 when he was OC C Company, 2/11th Battalion. He would later command the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track.
Brigadier Porter, 30th Brigade
PORT MORESBY, PAPU, 1942-07. GROUP OF OFFICERS OF 30TH AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BRIGADE. LEFT TO RIGHT:- LIEUTENANT-COLONEL O.A. KESSELS, OFFICER COMMANDING 49TH AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BATTALION, BRIGADIER S. H. W. C. PORTER, COMMANDING 30TH AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BRIGADE; LIEUTENANT-COLONEL N. L. FLEAY, COMMANDING KANGA FORCE; LIEUTENANT-COLONEL W. T. OWENS, OFFICER COMMANDING 39TH AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BATTALION; AND MAJOR J. A. E. FINDLAY, SECOND-IN-COMMAND, 39TH AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BATTALION.
 
Brigadier Potts, 21st Brigade.
PAPUA. 1942-09. IN A FORWARD AREA ON THE TRACK TO KOKODA. LEFT TO RIGHT: BRIGADIER ARNOLD W. POTTS DSO MC (COMMANDING 21ST INFANTRY BRIGADE), CORPORAL RONALD SIMPSON (HIS DRIVER), WX3254 CAPTAIN JAMES PETER KEYNON (KEN) MURDOCH (STAFF CAPTAIN LEARNER, 21ST BRIGADE), LIEUTENANT A. L. SALOM (LIAISON OFFICER, 30TH BRIGADE), CAPTAIN C. L. THOMPSON (ADJUTANT 2/14TH BATTALION). https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/026716

Related posts

87 – Julian Corbett and British Maritime and Grand Strategy with Professor Andrew Lambert

admin

80 – The Fire Plan for the Battle of Vimy Ridge

admin

22 – Centre of Gravity Analysis with COL Dale Eikmeier

James Eling

Leave a Comment