The Principles of War Podcast
Ralph Honner, leader of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track

105 – Ralph Honner, Leadership and the 39th Battalion and the Kokoda Campaign

 What was it that made the 39th Battalion such a great battalion? We look at the role of Ralph Honner and Leadership in the combat performance of the Battalion on the Kokoda Track.

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Dr. David Cameron, an expert on the Kokoda campaign, which is a part of our Kokoda series campaign which focuses on the Battle of Isurava and the militia 53rd Battalion. He’s written many books on it. David is sharing with us his expertise on the 39th Battalion, what made the 39th Battalion great, and their leader during the Kokoda campaign, Lt. Col. Ralph Honner.

Comparisons between the 53rd and 39th Battalions

This table illustrates some of the key differences between the 53rd Battalion and the 39th Battalion. The table illustrates some key differences between the two battalions. I have compared the two Battalions with D Coy, 6 RAR to compare them both with mobilisation best practice. Time, leadership, training, equipment made the difference.

 53rd Battalion39th BattalionD Coy 6 RAR
FormationNovember 1941 for service in Darwin   Force. Unaware they were serving in New Guinea until they left Sydney Harbour.
8 weeks before deployment.
October 1941, for service in New Guinea. Only slightly longer than 53rd. 1 year Birthday on the beach of Vung  Tau.
CompositionSent from other Battalions, some with long charge sheets.  Often seen as discards.  Over   200 men how had only been called up in October. Some had been in the Army less than 2 weeks before getting on the boat.From elms 3rd and 4th  Inf Div and 2nd Cav Div, volunteers and   selected. Older officers on raising as Conran wanted AIF experience 11 WOs and SGTs and a PTE were veterans. Instilled pride and Esprit de Corps.Regular and National servicemen.
LeadershipWard was good, lack of depth and experience in officers (2IC on course). Not many strong LTs and SNCOs.  Bill Elliot, original SGT, spoke of the officers – “they were all just thrown in a heap  and they were trying to sort themselves out.” Small number of 2nd  AIF officers given 2IC and PL COMD posns. LTs 9 week officers course. Many officers holding temporary ranks.LT COL Hugh Conran, first AIF, 52 y.o.   Keith   Lovatt  demoted from CAPT to LT to serve in the 39th.2LTs 23 week Scheyville  training. Some RMC Duntroon LTs.
Range of age groups, with older   soldiers providing maturity.MAJ Harry Smith highly experienced.
Greater share of the 1st AIF officers with combat experience from WW1. Aggressive Coy and Bn training program,   including time at Canungra  for Jungle warfare training.
EquipmentPoor, predominantly .303s, some Bren guns. No mortars or Vickers, no artillery or air support.Same as 53rd.Owen (still), Armalite, SLR, M60.
CommandLT COL Ward KIA in ambush. Large impact on the morale of the Bn.LT COL Ralph Honner –   brilliant leader, battle hardened. 2nd AIF reinforcement officers put in positions of command.Harry Smith, ex Commando.  Trained the Coy very hard and built strong   esprit de corp.
MoraleIntended for Darwin Force (not an attractive posting), sent to Port Moresby unexpectedly.  Used as labourers, created a very discontented Battalion.Conran developed high esprit de   corps.  Men had volunteered for service in New Guinea.High, Smith developed strong esprit de corps
TrainingLabourers, limited range practice, 1coy exercise in open terrain.Better training in Australia before departing to New Guinea gave physical conditioning and esprit de corps. Similar except for the brief period when the 2nd AIF officers came in.  This was important training in weapons and basic soldiering skills that served them very well.Bespoke training for a narrow range of   skills, jungle and   insurgency fighting.
EmploymentSudden move up the Kokoda Trail, issued Bren Guns at Owers Corner. At Isurava some reports from Platoons and Coys went through BDE HQ before getting to Bn HQ.First contacts occured far removed from the   Maroubra Force HQ.  One of the Coy   given   a second chance by Honner.Terrain not as difficult as New Guinea.
First contact was one of the most   intense fire fights in the Vietnam War for the Australian Army.
SupportReinforced with 2nd AIF Battalion mid battle.Same as 53rd Battalion.Fast Air, 3000 rounds 105mm, aerial   resupply. 

This table highlights the similarities between the 39th and 53rd Battalions. There were some differences in raising, some key, but also a lot of similarities. There were some differences in training, but not a lot. There was very little difference in the sustaining of the two battalions between landing in Port Moresby (they travelled on the same ship) and their commitment to the Kokoda campaign.

These are key lessons for future mobilisations at short notice.

Ralph Honner
CAPT Ralph Honner, OC C Company 2/11th at Derna in Libya. He would go on to command the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track.

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