The Royal New South Wales Lancers
|Battle Honour 1st RNSWL|
The Regiment landed in New Guinea in August 1943, after three years of training and changing roles, the Regiment was finally to see action as the 1st Tank Battalion (Royal New South Wales Lancers) (Australian Imperial Force). The initial landing was at Milne Bay, site of the first defeat of Japanese arms in World War II.
In October 1943, orders were received for C Squadron to land at Langemark Bay near Finchaffen in support of the Australian Infantry that had recently defeated the Japanese at Lae.
C Squadron consisted of:
18 Matildas, 5 Jeeps and Trailers, 1 Fitters (Bren Gun) carrier and a "slave" (battery charging) carrier.
Senior Postings were:
Officer Commanding: Major S. Hordern
Second in Command: Captain R.J.F. Downes
Liaison Officer: Captain J.K. Hart
Admin Troop Commander: Lieutenant J.M. Ryan
Reconnaissance Officer: Lieutenant H.C. Curtayne
Squadron Sergeant Major: Warrant Officer Class 2: N. Faull
1 Troop Commander: Lieutant D. Skinner
2 Troop Commander: Lieutant J.A. Sellars
3 Troop Commander: Lieutant C.J. Watson
4 Troop Commander: Lieutant S.E. Johnston
5 Troop Commander: Lieutant J.L. O'Donnell
The C Squadron group reached Langemak Bay, the south side of which was to be its landing point, in the small hours of October 20.
The officers and men knew nothing about the area they had come to, did not possess a map of it and were relying on guides they believed would meet them. During the night other ships had joined the convoy and as they moved up the bay, in the darkness of night and completely blacked out, greeted by the noise of approaching aeroplanes, the squadron made preparations to disembark. The jeeps and trailers were loaded to capacity, yet most of the two weeks' operational supply of ammunition, fuel and rations was stacked in the hold, to be manhandled off the L.S.T. by non-tank crew members of the squadron.
To complicate matters, Jap planes had commenced to divebomb other shipping in the bay and Australian positions on the north side, so the disembarkation had to be made without lights. The L.S.T. captain, whose agitation increased with every bomb that fell, had stated his intention of pulling out in one hour regardless of whether off-loading had been completed. On top of all, it started to rain heavily. As the beach was approached, tank crews were standing by to unlash their Matildas. Over the intercommunication came orders from Hordern: "One minute to go - start engines - half a minute to go"; then the shock as the ship hit the beach, and as the ramp started to go down, "Troop leaders, take over". A torch blinked from the blackness outside and then appeared Lieutenant Emmott, wading waist deep through the water and climbing on to the ramp. He had been with 9th Division for about seven weeks, and his appearance at this juncture was reassuring to C Squadron which, as stated before, knew nothing about the area in which it had to land in darkness. As eyes became adjusted to the dark the landing spot was seen with dismay. A very narrow, muddy beach steeply shelving into deep water backed by row upon row of coconut trees, with absolutely no room to manoeuvre; there was only one hour to unload and if anything were to go wrong they, in the vernacular, would be sunk.
The nightmare that followed was not easily forgotten. For a while all went well; then the third tank off got badly bogged on the muddy beach. There was no time to free it and a new detour track had to be made for the others. Drivers performed remarkable driving feats and found they could do things with the tanks they had not believed possible before. A heavy-gauge arc mesh wire was laid over the new track and became entangled in the tracks of other tanks. For a while there was something approaching confusion. Everyone who could be spared worked furiously, driven and encouraged by Hordern, trying to ignore the enemy 'planes which were pounding the surrounding area, rolling off 200 litre drums of dieseline, lifting other stores, dodging tanks, in soaking rain and up to the waist in water, cursing the war and everything else. Meanwhile the harassed squadron leader was trying to restore order, supervise debugging of tanks and placate the irate and anxious L.S.T. captain who, standing above the ramp of the ship, was loudly exhorting his disembarking passengers to hurry up.
Time was running out and much of the stores were still on board when the last tank disappeared into the blackness of the coconut trees. Promptly at the end of an hour and without any warning the ramp started to go up and the L.S.T. got under way. By this time all the tanks had been unloaded but the men were still moving stores and continued to do so until the ramp was half way up, then they jumped about three metres into the water. That they succeeded in getting off all the jeeps was due to the magnificent skill of the drivers who had to make an almost impossible right-hand turn in water at the foot of the ramp and to the pugilistic art of an L.A.D. member who kept the lift from the top deck working in the final stages against strong opposition from the crew. A check in daylight showed that about one-third of the essential supplies had been left on board. Temporarily there was disorganisation; the tanks had disappeared and the beach was littered with stores of all description. Some of the squadron personnel left on the beach set off to follow the tank tracks; others were so exhausted they slept on the spot where they were as best they could. Sergeant Jack Haines awoke later to find he had a large snake, a species of adder, for a bedfellow.
Early in the day the squadron began to get organised and headquarters were established in Timbulan Plantation on the south side and at the head of Langemak Bay near where the Mape, or Bubai, River emptied into the bay. An L.C.M. ferry service was established to permit communication with divisional headquarters situated at Simbang across the bay. Enemy aircraft were over every night but their attacks were directed on targets to the north of the bay. At this time the 9th Division was encountering very strong opposition in the Kakakog-Kamloa area, about five kilometres north of squadron headquarters, and the air attacks appeared to be in support of the hard-pushed Japs in that area. On October 25 during a visit by Major Hordern, divisional headquarters was straddled by a stick of bombs and Brigadier S. T. W. Goodwin was killed; some of the shrapnel narrowly missed Trooper J. Stewart, Hordern's driver.
At first the squadron, despite its shortage of supplies including food, led a peaceful but somewhat uncomfortable existence as they had no conveniences of any kind, though everyone managed to construct some sort of crude shelter. The peacefulness ended suddenly when a United States airfield construction unit which was to build the great Dreger Harbour Airstrip moved in alongside. A few hours after their arrival the evening 'planes appeared as usual, and the Americans opened fire with everything to hand, despite the fact that the range was too great for any of their weapons. Naturally this demonstration invited enemy attention and the Americans' camp and surroundings were bombed on the following night; the Americans departed hurriedly. However, as a result of their stay the squadron became much better equipped, having managed to acquire (partly during the height of the air raid) a large number of stretchers and some tinned food. On 25 October the squadron commenced a move to better surroundings at Pola near the Kolem Mission on the north side of the bay; only one L.C.M. was available and the move was completed on the 31st. Night air attacks were still regular events and on one occasion a number of bombs straddled the squadron's area without causing any damage or casualties, though one bomb fell only 10 metres from a slit trench in which some of the fitters were sheltering. Forward troops were now meeting more serious opposition but to C Squadron's disappointment there was no indication that its tanks would be used. The squadron was removed from 9th Division control and placed directly under 1st Australian Corps, commanded by Lieutennant General Herring.
It now appeared that, after his disastrous defeat in the Lae Salamaua area, the enemy was determined to hold the area from Sattelberg to the coast as long as possible, to enable him to build up his forces in the Sio-Saidor sector from his resources at Madang, where his strength was believed to be about 13,000 to 16,000 men, with a like number around Wewak. Something like 5,000 were believed to be forward of Sio at this time. Jap units identified as opposing 9th Division included the 79th and 115th Independent Regiments, the 80th Regiment and the 51st Divisional Engineer Regiment, the last mentioned having been badly mauled at Salamaua. (A Jap infantry regiment had its own artillery and was an extremely flexible organisation, with a strength of approximately 2,650, although this number varied considerably.)
Maintenance of his troops in the Sattelberg area was a big problem for the Jap. The long and difficult supply line over inland tracks from Sio was proving a liability and there were indications that he was short of food. All his supplies were brought forward from rear areas by barge and this means of supply had been given particular attention by Intelligence, while continuous attacks by Allied 'planes over a period of months had resulted in the destruction of a great many barges. A peculiarity of the Jap was that he would construct very strong defensive positions but do little or nothing to improve roads and tracks.
Jap opposition appeared to be stiffening everywhere; hard fighting was taking place around Jivevaneng on the Sattelberg Road where a Jap position was taken after 108 foxholes and pillboxes had been overcome. West of the Sisi-Kumawa track 400 Japs had been killed in a bitter battle.
The Australian landing at Scarlet Beach was an unexpected and serious blow to the Japanese who realised their grip oil the whole Rai Coast was threatened. Without control of this section they would be unable to maintain their barge traffic and troop movements between New Guinea and New Britain, so it would be almost impossible to receive reinforcements, badly needed after a succession of heavy losses in New Guinea, from New Britain where they had built up a large base. In preparation for a counter-attack thev built up their forces and supplies in the Sattelberg-Wareo area and at Sio. Their heaviest air attacks for months were launched against bases and troops in the Finschhafen sector and surface craft.
The enemy counter-attack was launched on the night of 16 October 1943. His plan provided for a three-pronged drive on Scarlet Beach with a force of 5,500 to 6,000. An attempt was to be made to effect a landing by barges on the beach itself, another force was to drive eastward from Sattelberg while the third force was to thrust southward along the coast. For some unknown reason this third group failed to attack as planned. The position for a time was most serious for the Australian troops who resolutely and successfully threw back attack after attack. The Japs succeeded in opening up a narrow passage along the Siki River through the village of Katika near Scarlet Beach and reached the coast on 18 October. This coastal salient was destroyed on 26 October after continuous and particularly hard fighting. Jap dead counted around the beach were 1,157 and this figure was only a minimum as the enemy were known to have buried large numbers. Australian troops then assaulted the enemy around Katika and after more bitter fighting the village was abandoned by the Japs who were still very strongly entrenched in high ground two kilometres to the west.
Fifteen bombers and 23 fighters were observed in a dropping mission over Sattelberg, which was an indication of the difficulties the enemy was having maintaining his troops.
At this stage the enemy still held most of the tactical approaches to Sattelberg with Allied forces in control of the ground to the east and south of a line from a point on the coast one and a half miles north-east of the Song or Busin River mouth, to a point 900 metres west of Katika, thence south-west to Kumawa (which was due west of Finschhafen Airfield
Finchaffen had been defended. The Regiment had taken part in a most difficult disembarkation under aerial attack, and suffered continuous air strikes. The infantry commanders did not yet understand the value of tanks in the jungle, and had not called on them, that was yet to come.
PV Vernon Royal New South Wales Lancers 1885–1985 Parramatta 1985
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