The Battle of New Caledonia

Brendan Nelson's attempt to equate Kokoda with Iraq was unwise. The implication is that both are direct threats to Australia. Which is obviously untrue for Iraq. But Nelson's descent into hyperbole gives me an opportunity to segue into one of the most important campaigns for Australia in WWII - the Battle of New Caledonia.

Niall Fergussan challenges the eurocentric view of history by arguing that World War II started with the escalation of hostilities between China and Japan that led to the Japanese invasion of central and northern Manchuria. Japanese advances in China were rapid, but eventually exhausted themselves by 1940 as over-extended supply lines became rate determining. Until the end of World War II, China was the dominant military campaign for Japan where nearly half of all their forces were maintained. The South Pacific was a race, a blitzkrieg to kick the European colonial powers in South-East Asia while they were weak, and establish Japanese Empire, or the Co-prosperity Sphere, such that all important natural resources, including Javanese Oil, could be secured.

The Japanese strategy was to deal a knock out blow to the United States Navy, race through Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia to secure oil and rubber, and then establish air bases and harbours down to New Caledonia such that the Sea Lines of Communication [SLOC] between Australia and the United States were cut.

Japan recognized that the European Empires were weak, and the war in Europe had sapped any projection or aid they could provide to their Asian colonies. This was true for the French, Dutch and British. The United States was the Japanese problem, as American economic power and ability to bring its natural resources into military production were undoubted. Japan also faced a difficult decision as its large forces were on the brink of unaffordability, and only the plunders from a war of expansion could keep them going. So like Abu Bakr's invasion of Iraq, Japan decided to use their forces in a lightning war of expansion through the south pacific.

Japan managed to achieve its aims with amazing speed and with very little in the way of forces - only eleven divisions were committed to the South-East Asia campaign. The Japanese use of long range air power as forward artillery, and manoeuvre to isolate opposing forces led to the Japanese Army being in Papua New Guinea, the Phillipines and just short of the Indian border within five months. Japan was on the verge of achieving their objective of New Caledonia.

The Battle of New Caledonia had several phases over a long period and included; the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Kokoda Track, Milne Bay and Guadalcanal. The latter proved to be the most decisive campaign as it was where the Japanese broke their back on the combined might of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps.

The Japanese military was not unitary - the main factions were the Army and the Navy. In achieving an invasion of New Caledonia the Army wanted Port Moresby so it could secure its own SLOCs and provide air power projection over southern New Guinea, the Solomons, North-Eastern Australia and the Coral Sea. The Navy wanted to work its way directly down to New Caledonia via the Solomons.The Army initially got its way and an invasion force sailed for Port Moresby, but was met by the United States Navy and the Battle of Coral Sea ensued - which ended in an American victory. The invasion fleet was turned back.

If there is a great commander of World War II - it is Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. He grasped quickly that the new naval power was the aircraft carrier and he used his small number of carriers aggressively as his main strike force. He quickly re-oriented his fleets around the carriers which became the doctrine that is the basis for current American naval hegemony. In the Battle of Midway the Japanese strategy was for their carriers to be bait, and the capital ships such as battleships to lie in waiting so they could run in and strike the US capital ships. Nimitz's strategy was that his carriers and naval aircraft were his new long range battle guns and the flagships of his fleet.

After Coral Sea the Japanese Army still wanted Port Moresby so they decided to take a two pronged method toward securing it. They sent a large Army force from northern New Guinea over the Owen Stanley Ranges toward Port Moresby. They also sent a small invasion force to the Australian garrison at Milne Bay. These were the first two Australian victories in the Pacific, and in the latter case, the first time an allied force had pushed a Japanese invasion force back into the sea. These should have been huge political victories - yet the anaemic Australian political and military leadership in WWII did not take advantage of the hard fighting of the soldiers on the ground.

The Japanese force sent across the Owen-Stanleys met Australian resistance at Kokoda. It should be noted that the Australian forces at Kokoda were predominantly militia. The Defence Act of the time restricted the government to only sending volunteers overseas. In WWII this was the 2nd Australian Imperial Force [AIF] which was composed entirely of volunteers. The militia were known as the Citizen Military Forces [CMF].

Militia forces were not supposed to serve outside of Australia but the Curtin government bent that rule by claiming that Papua New Guinea was an Australian territory, and consequently, sending the CMF to New Guinea was within the law. The Defence Act was later gutted as 'Australia' became defined as anything just south of the Phillipines, and if a unit contained half volunteers and half militia it was redesignated an AIF unit. Which is a shame as the Defence Act was one of the great moral legislative acts in what is a largely immoral area of state on state violence.

Kokoda was also the first instance where the Allies actively and doggedly resisted the Japanese. Kokoda went back and forth a few times as it's airstrip made it a highly important location for logistical reasons and the Maroubra Force mounted several attacks trying to recover it. Again, it is important to note, that this force comprised largely of militia. So rather than the 'scared rabbits' and 'chocolate soldiers' of Macarthur's and Blamey's take on events - the first real show of resolve was from the militia.

The Australians could not hold back the superior numbers of the Japanese, and consequently the Australian strategy become one of holding against the Japanese constantly and then dropping back to a new secured position - allowing the Japanese to over-extend their supply lines but making them pay for each yard gained at the same time. The Japanese got close to Port Moresby, but by that time their supply lines were long, slow and vulnerable. To add to the Japanese woes the 7th Division had arrived from North Africa. Australia led a counter-attack which was not to stop until Lae had been taken on New Guinea's northern shore.

Milne Bay was another important combat in the Battle for New Caledonia. Milne Bay was a small garrison on the south eastern side of New Guinea that contained an airfield. The RAAF had two fighter squadrons and a flight of fighter bombers stationed there. The Japanese decided to land a marine invasion force nearby with the objective of taking the airfield. This would put direct pressure on Port Moresby and the fighting going on down the Kokoda Track.

The numbers involved in the fighting were small in comparison to Kokoda and Guadalcanal but it was a near thing as the Japanese got to the edges of the airfield before finally being repelled. The Japanese ordered a withdrawal and after a two week battle Australia had deposed the myth of Japanese invincibility. It was the first time a Japanese force had been defeated on land, and the first time a Japanese invading force had been pushed back into the sea. Again it should be noted that the Australian forces defending Milne Bay were a mix of AIF and militia.

The victories of Kokoda and Milne Bay should have been massive political opportunities for Australia. The Australian Army and Air Force had handed political victories to Curtin and Blamey without being asked and had established Australia as the premiere fighting force in the South Pacific during 1942. This should have been when Curtin said to America, "Give us aircraft because our Army can kick the Japanese all the way back up to Singapore." But this opportunity was not taken and instead Macarthur ended up dominating the politics of Australian-American relations. This reflects poorly on Curtin and Blamey.

The final phase of the Battle for New Caledonia was Guadalcanal. This was an island in the Solomons that was mainly notable for the fact that the Japanese were building an airbase on it. The USMC decided to invade the island to deny the Japanese use of what was to become Henderson Field. The American and Japanese realised that this was the protracted campaign that was going to decide dominance of the SLOCs between Australia and the United States as well as who will finally have blue water dominance.

For this reason the United States and Japan threw increasing resources into the campaign which ultimately led to an American victory. But the outcome was by no means decided, and like Milne Bay and Kokoda it was a near thing for quite a while that Japan might have taken the island back. American naval losses were significant through the campaign and the Marine Corps suffered horrendous losses.

The Marine Corps have better control over their history than the Australian Militia did. It is rarely recognized that Kokoda and Milne Bay were two of the great militia victories in world martial history. Nor does wider military history recognize that it was the Australian Army and Militia which gave Japan its first two defeats on land. Australia was central to World War II in 1941-1942. Without Australia, Britain would have been unable to open a second front in North Africa during 1941. Without Australia, Papua New Guinea would have been lost and with no guarantee that the Solomons campaign would have ended in victory for the USMC and USN.

One of the sad facts of World War II was that Australian politicians and military commanders did not take advantage of Australian success - the leadership was really quite poor.

cam 2007-02-26 05:51:20.0
adam : The start of World War II: When I was in China a student asked what I knew about Chinese modern history, so I sketched out a timeline. Giving 1939 as the start of WWII caused a double take. I'm pretty sure they were taught 1937, ie the start of the Sino-Japanese War, which is probably fair enough.Likewise an Australian friend was outraged in the Smithsonian when he saw an exhibit describing World War II as 1941-1945.
cam : Ferguson's thesis is an interesting one: as he is trying to describe violence rather than just state on state violence - so he tries to incorporate into his thesis all the ethnic violence as well. He ends up describing the period 1937-1952 as a war against totalitarianism. It ends in Korea as by then nuclear weapons had become the dominant form of any future state on state violence, so that component settled down.His thesis is that the anglo-saxon world, ie US/UK/Au/Can etc ended up adopting totalitarian methods such as a command economy and dehumanising the opponent which led to state sponsored violence even in the Anglo countries and by Anglo forces.He has a point, but his thesis doesnt describe ethnic violence outside of that period though. For instance Australian violence against the Aboriginal people which was state sponsored (and dominated in the early 20thC). Unless you see the late 19thC and early 20thC as ethnic nationalist violence which then morphed into totalitarianism and became all manner of racial/ethnic violence within a framework of state on state total war. Which suggests the step after nationalism is totalitarianism. But I have a hard time accepting that as a natural follow
adam : Nationalism and totalitarianism: I suspect they are more or less orthogonal; nationalism can be used to stoke totalitarianism (circa WWII) or democratic devolution of power (19th-20th century independence and republican movements, including Australian federation).