The Principles of War Podcast
53rd Battalion at Isurava

96 – The 53rd Battalion at Isurava during the Kokoda Campaign

When bravery isn’t enough – the 53rd Battalion and the Battle of Isurava

This is the third episode in our Kokoda Track series looking at the performance of the 53rd Battalion.  The 53rd, a militia Battalion, had some incredibly brave men.  Virtually untrained, poorly equipped, with inexperienced leaders, they fought a battle-hardened enemy in some of the worst terrain in the world. 

This episode continues to story of the 53rd Battalion as they start patrolling the jungle around Isurava just before the commencement of the Battle of Isurava.  We pick up the story of the 53rd on the 20th of August, 1942.  The 53rd Battalion is on the Kokoda track on its way to Isurava to relieve the 39th Battalion.  

The CO, LT COL Ward is at Alola and he starts to send out patrols in an attempt to understand the terrain and identify where Japanese troops are currently.  Control of some of the companies has been poor, with some straggling amongst the companies, reflecting the harsh terrain that they have to cover.

On the 22nd, BRIG Potts arrives at Alola.  His orders are to recapture Kokoda.  These orders were given to him by LT GEN Rowell, he is the commander of New Guinea Force.  BRIG Potts takes command of Maroubra Force.  He has three courses of action available to him – but which of the COAs is FASSD? (Feasible, acceptable, suitable, sustainable, and distinguishable).  Potts finds himself constrained by logistics, and the fact that the 39th Battalion is close to culmination.  
1. Leaving Battalions where they are.  This was not suitable as the 39th Battalion was close judged to be close to culmination.
2. Conduct a relief in place of the 39th with one of the 2nd AIF Battalions.
3. Leave the militia where they are and bring up 2 2nd AIF battalions on either flank, in order to conduct a Cannae like encirclement of the Japanese.  This is the most offensive, but logistically unsustainable.

Potts selected COA 2 to fight the Battle of Isurava.  It leaves the 53rd Battalion, so far untried, securing the key right flank on the Abuari track out to the East.  It was unlikely to achieve the mission of retaking Kokoda, but he would have discussed the logistics issues that would have precluded him from doing that with LT GEN Rowell.

As the days progress, it becomes increasingly apparent that the 53rd is lacking in training with difficulties in operating Tommy guns and a lack of aggressiveness in some of the contacts they have with the Japanese.

LT GEN Sid Rowell was faced with a dilemma on the 25th of August with the Japanese landing at Milne Bay.  The Japanese are layering dilemmas for commanders at all levels.

On the morning of the 26th, one 20-man patrol to Missima is missing.  The Japanese are becoming increasingly aggressive.  The 53rd Battalion has some patrols that lack aggressiveness and BRIG Potts notes in the BDE war diary – 

“Patrols must fight for information.
If definite answers are to be obtained, definite questions must be asked.”

BRIG Potts becomes increasingly concerned at the lack of aggressiveness from the 53rd patrols and he orders LT COL Ward to reoccupy Missima.  The patrol sent out to do this had some men go on the patrol without their weapons.  This is a grave mistake and highlights the issues within the 53rd.

The next episode will look at the 27th of August, a tragic day for the 53rd Battalion.

Battle of Isurava map
The Japanese thrust south along the Kokoda Trail, with the attempts to block the withdrawal route south from Isurava by taking Abuari, moving past the waterfalls and into Alola.

These are just the show notes for the podcast episode, please listen to the episode to get the full story of the 53rd Battalion.

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David Turner July 31, 2023 at 6:25 pm

Very interesting read. My great uncle was LT COL Ward.

PETER DOWLING March 20, 2024 at 10:01 pm

Hi James, Thank you for this necessary interrogation!


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