The Principles of War Podcast
39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track

104 – The 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track

This episode discusses the preparation and performance of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track. This is an interview with Dr David Cameron, the author of a series of excellent military histories, including

This episode is a part of our Kokoda series, which focuses on the 53rd Battalion, the Battle of Isurava and the errors in mobilisation that occurred when preparing the militia and 2nd AIF Brigades to fight the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea.

A lot was asked of the Battalion by Ralph Honner
A lot was asked of the Battalion by BRIG Selwin Porter
A lot was asked of the Battalion by the nation as the Japanese landed in New Guinea.

The 39th Battalion answered the call each and every time, giving all that was asked of them and more. The parlous supply situation meant that BRIG Potts could not bring up fresh 2nd AIF Battalions when he needed to. As casualties increased at the Battle of Isurava, the exhausted men of the 39th continued to fight.

Papua was an Australian Territory and this was the first time that Australian’s would fight

The History of the 39th in WW1

Like the 53rd, the 39th served in the First World War. Comprising soldiers predominantly from Western Victoria, it was formed on the 21st of February, 1916 at the Ballarat Showgrounds. The CO was LTCOL Robert Rankine. It was a part of the 10th Brigade of the 3rd Division. On the 27th of May they set sail from Melbourne on board the HMAT Ascanius for the UK. They trained at Larkhill for four months before crossing the Channel on the 23/24 of November. The 10th of December saw them relieve their sister Battalion, the 37th at Houplines, in the Armentieres sector.

39th Battalion soldier at Houplines, December 1916. AWM  E00086
39th Battalion soldier at Houplines, December 1916

Their first major engagement was at Messines in June 1917. The march to the line of departure saw a German gas attack, which resulted in the Battalion only being able to muster 120- soldiers for the attack. They formed up as a single wave and attacked on the right of the 10th Brigades attack. The attack went well, with the Battalion achieving it’s objectives and continuing on with the fighting for Grey Farm.

The Battalion took part in the battle of Broodseinde on the 8th of October, 1917, making up the 3rd wave of the Brigades attack. It took it’s objectives and reinforced the 40th Battalion as it fought for the final objective.

After a brief break to refit, the Battalion was committed to the attack on Passchendaele Ridge on the morning of the 12th of October. The previous night had seen heavy rain. The Battalion achieved it’s objectives, but was forced to withdraw as flanking units where unable to achieve their objectives.

It rotated in and out of the line for the next five months, until the German Spring Offensive. The Battalion was moved south to France and defended the Amiens sector. During the 100 days offensive, the 3rd Division was the held in reserve. It fought again at Proyart, in a badly planned attack on the 10th of August. The last major action for the Battalion was the fighting around the Mt Saint Quentin canal. During this battle, the CO, LTCOL Robert Henderson was killed. He had lead the Battalion since their first battle. After the 11th of November Armistace, the unit started the demobilisation process and was disbanded in March 1919.

During the First World War it’s members were awarded two DSOs, one MBE, 14 DCMs, 14 MCs, 78 MMs, (three with bars) and 22 MIDs. Total casualties were 405 KIA and 1,637 WIA. The Battalion was award 14 Battle Honours.

The interwar years

The 39th Battalion was reraised on in 1921, as a part of the Citizens Force, responsible for the defence of Australia. It was, once again, a part of 10th Brigade, 3rd Division. The Citizens Force was a part of the compulsory training scheme. This was end in 1929 by the Scullin Government and the economic hardships of the depression made recruiting difficult as members where concerned about asking for time off from their work during a period of high unemployment. In 1937 the 39th Battalion was merged with the 37th Battalion but was delinked and merged with the 24th Battalion in August 1939 to form the 24th/39th Battalion.

Re-raising for the Second World War

On October 1 1941, the Australian Military Board ordered the reraising of the 39th Battalion. The Battalion was raised to relieve the 49th Battalion, which was in Port Moresby. The new CO was LTCOL Hugh Conran, a member of the 23rd Battalion in the First World War and he was also active in the Militia between wars.

14 Platoon, C Company, 39th Battalion at Darley Camp during their 6 weeks of training prior to deployment to Port Moresby.
14 Platoon, C Company, 39th Battalion at Darley Camp during their 6 weeks of training prior to deployment to Port Moresby.

How did the preparation of the 39th differ from that of the 53rd Battalion?

Many of the officers and SNCOs had World War 1 experience. The Officers and SNCOs were interviewed and selected by Conran. More importantly, each soldier had volunteered to deploy to Port Moresby. The soldiers received 6 weeks of training so that the Battalion was able to form an embryonic culture and esprit de corps.

This compares to the 53rd Battalion, which had very few experienced Officers and SNCOs. The 53rd had some soldiers that had been in the Army for less than 10 days. Critically, all of the 39th had volunteered to go to Port Moresby. The 53rd Battalion thought they were going to Darwin and only found out they were destined for Port Moresby when on the Aquitania after leaving Sydney.

Preparation for the 39th Battalion in Port Moresby.

Once in Port Moresby, like the 53rd, the 39th Battalion was severely constrained in the amount of time for training. Much of the time was spent on developing defensive positions, stevedoring and road construction.

BRIG Porter recognised the lack of training and experience within 30th BDE and he attempted to improve this by requesting Officers from the 2nd AIF. The 39th Battalion received more officers and placed them in sub-unit (company) or Platoon Command. The 53rd received less, (we don’t know why) and they were not placed in command positions.

The 2nd AIF officers who marched in were somewhat disillusioned to find that they were commanding militia soldiers, but eventually learnt to understood the militia soldiers and as they saw them fight they became incredibly proud to command such fine soldiers. The 2nd AIF Officers had around four weeks to prepare the 39th Battalion for combat in the jungle.

B Coy deployed first up the Kokoda Track and then once B Coy was in contact one company started moving up the track each day to reinforce B Coy.

During this period there were five COs in quick succession, making it difficult for any one CO to establish themselves within the Battalion, understand the situation and fight the Japanese.

Conran – medically evacuated from the track – he was too old to handle the rigours of the track.
Templeton – took over from Conran but was wounded and captured by the Japanese. He fed false information to the Japanese before he was executed.
Owen – took over at the Kokoda plateau and did an excellent job.
Cameron – arrives as a Major just after Owen is killed. He wanted to disband B Coy because he thought they wouldn’t fight, but he was convinced to keep them.
Honner took over and thought he needed to build up B Coy, not destroy it. At Isurava, he told B Coy that he was placing them in the most important part of the line. Honner proved to be an Outstanding CO.

David Cameron’s book, The Battle of Isurava, along with the rest of his series on the Kokoda track, is an excellent resource for understanding the complex fighting that took place on the Kokoda Track.

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Rob Hickson April 14, 2024 at 8:49 pm

You have not mentioned the 49th Battalion who was also there. My father who was in the 49th remembered the 53rd only to well.

Robert Burnham May 8, 2024 at 9:22 pm

What about the 3rd Bn, the only Bn to go from Port Morsbey to Gona and was reinforced with 200 extra men mid September 1942.
They never get mention, Bn lost 52 men.

admin May 31, 2024 at 9:39 am

I wish I had more time to go into some of the other Bns. The 3rd was definitely a strong Battalion. Well lead – they fought very well in one of our hardest campaigns of the war.


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