The Principles of War Podcast
The death of LT COL Kenneth Ward

99 – The Death of a CO

This is the fourth 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 looks at the events on the 27th of August, 1942.  We discuss how the CO, LT COL Kenneth Ward was killed and the impact it had on the 53rd Battalion and Maroubra Force as they fought desperately to defend Isurava.

The fog of war descends both on Brigade Headquarters and within Battalion Headquarters.

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.

The Brigade Major orders the 53rd Bn provide definite information about the situation. The CO, LT COL Kenneth Ward sets out with LT Logan, the Intelligence Officer with 2 pers move to the creek crossing to determine what exactly is happening. 

At 14:55, a runner returns with the news that the CO, LT Logan and PTE Foster have been killed in an ambush.

Much of the Battalion is engaged in combat.  Nick Anderson writes in ‘To Kokoda” that that Intelligence Officer may have erred in thinking that Abuari was clear of Japanese troops.  

Following the death of the CO of the 53rd Battalion, the situation deteriorates dramatically. Command and control of the individual companies is extremely difficult and the situational awareness for Bn HQ and Brigdae Headquarters is poor. Command of the unit would normally go to the 2IC, but the 2IC (2nd in charge) is in Australia completing a course to enable him to be a CO – this was MAJ Farrell. This fell to CAPT Hawkins. With the Intelligence Officer and CO dead, regaining situational awareness whilst in contact would have been nearly impossible.

His Excellency, the Governor, presenting the Colours of the 20th Battalion to Lieut K. H. Ward at Liverpool. Sunday, March 14th, 1926.
His Excellency, the Governor, presenting the Colours of the 20th Battalion to Lieut Kenneth H. Ward at Liverpool. Sunday, March 14th, 1926.
LT COL Kenneth Ward, Commanding Officer, 53rd Battalion, KIA 26 Aug, 1942 - vicinity Abuari Falls in a Japanese ambush.
LT COL Kenneth Ward, Commanding Officer, 53rd Battalion, KIA 26 Aug, 1942 – vicinity Abuari Falls in a Japanese ambush.

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DCC September 19, 2023 at 4:03 am

Excellent episode! Thank-you for highlighting the effects of leaders making themselves absent. I began as a reservist and my experience in the first round of Operation Iraqi Freedom was very similar to what that CO and S2 did in this episode with indulging their desire to see the fighting personally instead of trusting their troops, with predictably fatal results for the command and the commanded.

admin November 11, 2023 at 3:01 pm

I am not sure that this is the case. The CO was under significant pressure from BDE HQ, his S2 was very, very inexperienced. His OCs were inexperienced and they were fighting in the jungle – probably the most difficult terrain to conduct operations in. I believe he knew full well the risks that he was taking, but had little choice with the integrity of the R) flank hanging in balance. One of the CO’s dilemmas is where to be, but there is no doubt that there is a requirement to be at the decisive point when comms have broken down. This is the case here and this is what he hoped to do. It is my opinion that in this case, LTCOL Ward acted in the best traditions of the Army.

I will be doing a future episode which will look at how the 2/14th and 2/16th performed and they struggled as well. That was with strong unit cohesion, battle hardened troops and a lot of training. This are luxuries that LTCOL Ward was never afforded which compounded all of his not insignificant problems.

The CO should be at the decisive point of the battle. The Battalion should be able to function without him, however the XO was on course in Australia and there was no one with the experience to be able to wheel and deal the four Coys. LTCOL Ward dealt extremely well with a wicked problem and no Australian Battalion commander should be presented with, in my opinion. This is the nature of combat however, the Japanese seized the initiative and there was a lot of hard fighting in a lot of places before it was taken from them.

David Turner October 2, 2023 at 6:31 pm

Lt Col Ward was my great uncle. He had been the topic of many family conversations for as long as I can remember. His brother, my grandfather suffered almost a lifetime of grief. Every ANZAC day the family travelled to Riverstone cemetery where a memorial plaque was placed on his parents grave. I’m also in possession of many of his hand written letters, documents etc. & photos which were also included in the podcast website. The family narrative emphasised the view that some troops had deserted their posts & that Lt Col Ward was given false intelligence by a person or persons unknown which combined, led directly to his death. I guess the pressure was on him to try & understand the strategic situation. Listening to this episode rekindled many memories of family discussions reflecting the bitterness that comes from what may have been a preventable event followed by little or no support from relevant authorities. I also feel that my family were not alone in this grief, which I’m sure is shared by others who had lost a family member as a result of armed conflict.

PETER DOWLING March 20, 2024 at 10:13 pm

Thank you, David. I am glad you were able to listen to it.


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