Battle Honour 1st RNSWL
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On 8 December 1943 the remainder of the battalion group, less B Squadron, began its move from the Buna area to Finschhafen. The movement of the group was carried out by the United States Navy in L.C.T's (landing craft, tanks). Despite a calm sea the comfort of travelling in this type of vessel compared most unfavourably with that of the L.S.T's to which the group had been accustomed.
Immediately on arrival at Finschhafen on the 11th orders were issued by Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow for A Squadron to relieve C Squadron. One troop was to move north immediately to Coconut Beach and work for a few days under Major Hordern, until Captain Watson took over command on the l4th.
By about midnight (the 11th - 12th) the tank harbour had been occupied, the crews had made their sleeping arrangements, and an air raid was in progress when word was passed around that coffee and biscuits were available. Although a little doubtful the crews made their way back towards the beach in the dark and ,found that a Salvation Army officer, with a well concealed fire inside a hut, which he had constructed of salvaged materials, was indeed dispensing coffee and biscuits. This and subsequent experiences of amenities provided by the Salvation Army made a lasting impression on everyone.
On the following day, 12 December, 2 Troop under Lieutenant George B. McLean moved by L.C.M. to Coconut Beach near Kiligia. The troop ikas accompanied by Captain Watson who, on arrival, was met by Major Hordern and given all available information on the existing situation.
Advanced battalion headquarters were established adjacent to divisional headquarters at Bonga. This policy of keeping close up to divisional headquarters was followed during the succeeding weeks as it enabled the commanding officer to be available to attend the G.O.C's conferences.
On the 14th, 5 Troop under Lieutenant Trevor G. Darby was moved to Kiligia by L.C.M. and there joined 2 Troop. The force of six tanks was then moved forward for a little over two kilometres to a creek bed about 400 metres south of Lakona, which was the site of a small village at Cape Sibida. It was learned that the enemy had formed a strong defensive position on this site although all that could be seen were a few wrecked native huts and a coconut plantation. The plantation covered the ground almost to the cliff overlooking the sea. The cliff edge was formed of volcanic rock and the Japs had carried some of this rock up to the flat ground of the coconut plantation and had constructed rifle and L.M.G. firing positions. Each of these positions had a good field of fire across the plantation and was well concealed against a background of scrub and small trees which grew along the cliff.
Unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the enemy from this position had been made by the 22nd Battalion (4th Brigade) on the 13th and 14th, and about 60 casualties had been sustained in three companies. The infantry had been ordered to attack again on the 15th with tank support and the attack was timed to commence when the tanks reached the position.
In order to reach this position it was necessary for the tanks to ascend the far bank of the creek which, although not more than 10 metres high, was very steep. The crews struggled for hours to drive the tanks to the top of the bank but without success. Aids in the form of a bulldozer from the divisional engineers, gelignite, picks and shovels were all used, but by nightfall not one tank had reached the top.
During the proceedings one tank of 5 Troop became bogged in the creek, and had to be abandoned for the night, the crew carefully locking it and removing all external equipment of value. This equipment was carried back to the tank harbour about 200 metres south of the creek. By the time the A Squadron detachment had reached the harbour it was pitch dark and after refuelling and a very brief maintenance were carried out, operational rations were eaten, guards were placed, mosquito nets erected and the troops settled down for the night. Slit trenches could not be dug as the noise would have attracted hostile attention.
Shortly after the troops had settled down they received their baptism of fire when the enemy opened up with a battery of 75mm. guns. This caused a rapid move to cover inside the tanks where an uncomfortable hour or so was spent. Some shells fell close by but no damage was done to any of the tanks, although one infantryman was hit by a branch from a shell-struck tree.
Dawn came and after a quick breakfast the troops moved to the creek bed and with renewed vigour once more set about scaling the bank, as they realised that unless they succeeded that day they could be out of the war indefinitely. The bogged tank was quickly retrieved and once again the bulldozer attempted to cut down the northern bank to reduce the gradient. Again and again the drivers, with all the assistance that the crews could give them, tried to climb over the bank, but each time they just fell short of success. At frequent intervals messages were passed between the tank force and the infantry concerning the progress of the tanks. Tank support was highly important for the renewal of the attack as it was obvious that, without it, the casualties would be very heavy due to the ground and the enemy's fire positions.
Eventually orders were given to the infantry that they were to attack at 16:00 with or without tank support.
At about 15:00 Captain Watson decided to build a corduroy track in the hope that this would enable the tanks to scale the creek bank. All squadron personnel set to work cutting down saplings and laying the track, which was pegged down at intervals. On the completion of the track a tank was driven on to it and although over 50 men rushed forward spontaneously and put their shoulders and even hands tc) the tank, it only reached a point about 1.5 to 3 metres from the top.
Despairing of success, Captain Watson reluctantly decided to advise the infantry that the tanks would be unable to make the start line by 16:00 This message was given to a runner, but before he had moved off, Trooper John McDade, the gunner of Darby's tank, approached his troop leader with the suggestion that, as the tank's tracks were slipping on the corduroy surface, they might have more chance of gripping if every second sapling was removed. This suggestion was taken up strongly with Watson, who then sought a little more time in which to make a final attempt to pass this obstacle.
With renewed enthusiasm, everyone set about modifying the corduroy track, and after completing the operation in an amazingly quick time, the tank with the most powerful engine was selected to attempt the ascent. When this tank was almost up to the crest a second tank was driven up behind it and bumped into its rear. This effort was sufficient to get the leading tank over the crest. This tank was then used to tow the second one over, and this system was carried out until the five tanks (two of 2 Troop, and three of 5 Troop) had negotiated the bank. At this point Watson sent a message to the infantry that he could attack at 17:00 and not, as planned, at 16:00
A short squadron conference followed, when details of the original orders were again given to refresh the minds of all concerned. These orders had been issued on the morning of the previous day, but had been partly forgotten during the toil and anxiety of overcoming the obstacle of the creek.
Moving in line ahead down the sloping ground to the edge of the plantation the tanks then formed line - believed to be the first time ever that tanks had attacked in this formation in jungle warfare -and the infantry formed up in groups behind the individual tanks. Captain Watson, with walkie-talkie radio and Lieutenant Hall, the squadron reconnaissance officer, moved with the infantry commander.
The tanks, under radio control, then advanced in four or five bounds of 15 to 20 metres, firing at each halt. This completely silenced the enemy opposition and, in this manner, took the infantry right across the plantation to the edge of the cliff without any casualties. just as the last bound was reached Hall noticed, on the right flank, an enemy L.M.G. whose gunner had purposely waited until the tanks were past him in order to have an excellent target of an infantry company at close range. Fortunately the fire order was clear enough and McDade accurate enough with his first howitzer shell at about 45 metres range to silence this gun. McDade followed this by a second direct hit.
On reaching the edge of the cliff (Cape Sibida) tank crew commanders found that their guns could not be depressed sufficiently to achieve the necessary effect on the enemy who had retired over the edge to the sea shore. As it was realised that our infantry, in following the enemy, would be most vulnerable, it was decided to lay a small, but effective, smoke screen for them by suddenly accelerating all tank engines simultaneously, throwing out clouds of exhaust smoke.
The infantry moved on through the smoke screen and a few minutes later the tanks were ordered to an area, about 200 metres away, which had been selected as a harbour. "Alamein", the tank of 5 Troop's leader, jammed in gear and was delayed for a few minutes and, when moving on, cut a signal cable which had just been laid. The crew dismounted and repaired the break, this being an operation on which they had been firmly trained. As the tank was about to move again, a badly wounded infantryman was placed on its front to be carried back to stretcher bearers at a safer area.
The ammunition expended this day amounted to 12 3-inch shells, 251 2-pounder shells, 24 belts of Besa rounds and, in addition, 36 grenades were given to the infantry to throw at the enemy over the cliff.
It was almost dark when the harbour was reached and, after a brief hasty tank maintenance and a cold meal, shallow weapon pits were dug. There was, however, not much rest to be had as owing to the advent of darkness the infantry had not been able to mop up the enemy completely and had withdrawn to the top of the cliff and dug in. The enemy proceeded, mainly for their nuisance value, to project picric acid explosives, which were noisy but rather harmless, on to the infantry's position and this continued throughout the night. Squadron personnel, at intervals, helped to evacuate some of the wounded infantry.
At first light the infantry attacked again, cleaned up the remaining pockets of enemy and withdrew. Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow, accompanied by Captain Watson, paid an early visit to the tank harbour. Later in the morning the infantry attacked enemy positions along the north bank of the river and forced a crossing about 800 metres west-north-west of Lakona. The tanks were not called for in these engagements, but were, of course, held in readiness and this necessitated continual reconnaissances and formulating of plans by Watson and his officers in order to deal with any situation should tank support be called for. Following sharp and bitter fighting by the infantry, the enemy were driven out and the advance continued to other positions on a creek bed 200 metres north-west of Lakona.
On that night (the 17th-18th) an enemy aircraft circled over the area at a low altitude estimated at about 50 metres, but fire was not opened in order not to disclose exact positions. Although it was bright moonlight and the plane could be seen clearly from the ground, no bombs were dropped near the tanks or the forward infantry. After circling for a few minutes two incendiary bombs were dropped about 100 metres to the south setting fire to the kunai grass and nearby troops were employed to extinguish the blaze.
On the morning of 18 December, after an artillery preparation, the enemy were driven back by the infantry to the north side of the Masaweng River. This river was fairly wide at the mouth, with a pebbly bottom, but the infantry and the tanks had no difficulty in crossing it at a time when it was no more than a metre deep.
On the north side of the river the country is dominated by a hill, Fortification Hill, 250 metres high, and Fortification Point Ridge which comes right down to the sea, but although these could have been made into effective obstacles the enemy had taken no steps to improve them. The coastal track followed the coastline quite closely for the next 1,000 metres or so, sometimes going very close to the cliff edge. It ran through fairly thick vegetation, not typical steamy New Guinea jungle, yet containing a lot of undergrowth, vines and small trees up to roughly 6 inches in diameter.
In this phase of the advance the two troop leaders' tanks commenced by leading the operation abreast - on the right and nearer the cliff edge, McLean of 2 Troop and on the left Darby of 5 Troop. Forward elements of C Company 29th/46th Battalion, followed closely and Watson was with the forward platoon commander, with Hall close behind them. Owing to the density of the jungle and the abundance of vines, it was not practical for a tank to move opened up, as the vines and other growth would foul the open hatch. The crew's visibility was not good enough when the tank was closed down, so the movement of the tanks was to be directed by Watson's walkie-talkie. Soon after commencing the advance in this way the walkie-talkie broke down, and as the track veered slightly to the left McLean, being out of walkie-talkie control, continued forward slowly to the cliff edge. Darby realised the situation and called up McLean just in time to forestall his driving over the edge where there was a drop of 20 metres to the rocks below.
The track had become narrower so the advance continued with the tanks "one up" (i.e., a one-tank frontage). Darby, who was leading, opened up and orders were given by hand signals and shouts. Movement was by bounds with the tanks firing at each halt. There was occasional fire from the enemy who kept falling back, and the tank fired at any position known to have been occupied by the enemy and also generally sprayed the ground in the vicinity. In this manner two machine gun posts were eliminated. A clearing in the jungle was reached where the infantry went ahead of the tanks, and after some sharp fighting the enemy withdrew further.
"Alamein", Darby's tank, had led up to this stage and as an appreciable amount of ammunition had been used it was now put in reserve. Sergeant W. F. Halliday, 2 Troop sergeant, then took the lead in his tank. At the end of the clearing there was a large rock close to the track and when the leading tank reached this there was a loud explosion as a Jap 37-mm. gun opened fire from its concealed position behind the rock. The tank replied promptly at a range of about 3 metres, killing the Jap gun crew. No damage was done to the tank but fragments of the shell from the Jap gun had passed under or beside the tank, wounding Watson in the chest and Hall in the ankle. Ron Pile, regimental Intelligence sergeant, gave first aid and they were evacuated, Hall being taken out on a stretcher. At Watson's request the Jap gun was brought out on a tank. Captain Gordon Hardcastle, the squadron second-in-command, took over and Lieutenant Hugh Miller replaced Hall.
Sergeant Les Nightingale, 5 Troop, then took the lead in his tank but proceeded only a few metres before being halted by a large rock which narrowed the track. A number of rounds of high explosive and Besa were fired in the general direction of the enemy although contact was not made again. With the approach of nightfall the infantry dug in and the tanks moved back to a position on the north bank of the Masaweng River. During this day some of the squadron had exhibited more enthusiasm than discretion and on some occasions spare crews and fitters were ahead of the infantry.
On the next day, the 19th, the tanks stayed at the river. Orders were received from division that nine tanks would continue up the coast, the remainder to be held in divisional reserve. The Ist Tank Battalion's advanced headquarters were to be opened next to divisional headquarters just north of Sowi Beach. At this stage supplies of rations and ammunition were mainly being brought forward by barge to previously selected beaches where supply points and other administrative installations had been established. Some of the detachments of auxiliary troops had been removed from the direct command of Ist Tank Battalion. The forward tanks were being supplied by the forward brigade. The A.A.S.C. detachment was under the divisional Commander Army Service Corps and was used for general supply duties. The ambulance detachment was attached to the casualty clearing station which was very short staffed, and the two medical officers, Captains Matheson and Bacon, were attached to forward infantry battalions. The engineers were under the command of the divisional Commander Royal Engineers, but were working directly with the leading tanks. The Workshop and Field Park parties remained under battalion command. A detachment of the Signal Maintenance Troop kept well forward.
The three tanks of 4 Troop (Lieutenant J. C. Bartlett), having been brought by sea to Sowi Beach, came on by road to join the advanced portion of the squadron at the Masaweng River on 20 December.
The infantry continued their advance but although enemy opposition was not heavy the pace was slow owing to the nature of the country, and in order not to outdistance a unit which was protecting the left flank and patrolling in country where progress was slow. This latter unit occupied Fortification Hill on December 20, no contact being made with the enemy. On the same day the 29th/46th Battalion, 4th Brigade, reached its final objective, Fortification Point. The 4th Brigade was to be relieved by the 20th, which had been in reserve, and the squadron saw the 2/13th Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Colvin, D.S.O., pass through on the 20th to take over the lead.
North of Fortification Point the coastal strip was wider, fairly open, well covered with kunai grass, and from the left overlooked by rising, terraced ground. No. 2 Troop supported leading elements of the 2/13th when the advance was resumed on the 21st. Artillery and B Company, 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion were also in support. The only opposition experienced was from snipers and Hubika was reached on the same day. At that point the tanks were held up by a steep creek bank, so two of them were taken to the beach for an attempt to cross at the creek mouth. This attempt however, was unsuccessful; one tank became bogged and the enemy commenced mortaring. The first target appeared to be the bogged tank, so efforts to retrieve it ceased temporarily, but the hostile fire was later shifted to some higher ground where the rest of the tanks were located with some infantry. The shooting was inaccurate and, although some of the squadron spent an uncomfortable half-hour under or in the tanks, no casualties occurred.
The general picture in this sector until the tanks were finally recalled at Gneisenau Point was that the enemy were retreating quickly, offering only spasmodic resistance, and our infantry were pursuing as rapidly as possible, but having to wait at times for supporting units to catch up. Creek crossings were very numerous and engineer assistance was required at most of them to allow tanks and artillery to proceed.
From 22 to 24 December one column operated along the coastal track and a second column inland. Forward troops of the former had reached and captured Wandokai on the 24th; quantities of equipment and ammunition were found but little opposition was met. The column which was advancing inland over more difficult terrain also reached the Wandokai area on the 24th. The track from Hubika to Wandokai proved to be unsuitable for tank traffic and the tanks were therefore moved by barge from Hubika and were landed at a beachhead at Wandokai on 25 December. Although numerous anti-tank mines were found in the shallow water at the point of landing, no damage was caused to the tanks. The A.S.C. was able to signalise Christmas Day by distributing some fresh meat to the forward troops, the first that had been tasted since the squadron was at Buna.
The advance was resumed from Wandokai on 27 December after the tanks had opened fire on possible enemy positions, some artillery fire had been directed on more distant points where enemy had been observed, and targets still further away had been bombed from the air. Ago and Walingai were taken on the 27th and Blucher Point, some 16 or 17 kilometres from Wandckai, on the following day. The plan for the attack on Blucher Point called for tank support. As the tanks had not been able to keep pace with the infantry they were well to the rear, so the start of the attack was delayed. On their arrival the attack commenced, but to the disappointment of the sweating crews their progress was soon blocked by an unfordable creek ' so A Company of the 2/13th had to carry the attack home alone. The "going" over coral was causing considerable suspension trouble to the tanks and the Light Aid Detachment kept close up to the leaders. Advanced headquarters of the Ist Tank Battalion moved to Wandokai on the 28th and Headquarter Squadron to slightly north of the Masaweng River.
The vicinity of Nanda was reached on 30 December and the following day the 2/15th Battalion took over the lead from the 2/13th and on 1 January, took Nanda.
The opening of the year saw A Squadron under the 20th Brigade and C under the 4th Brigade of the 9th Division while B at Buna and Milne Bay was under command of the 11th Division.
From Nanda the advance was continued to Nuzen and along the track there were signs of recent heavy enemy movement. The tanks were some distance back when a wireless message was received requesting them to move up as quickly as possible as the infantry had been held up and were sustaining casualties. However, by the time the tanks arrived the resistance had been overcome, and the tanks were then faced with what at first appeared to be an obstacle. The track which zigzagged down a very steep bank, could not be negotiated by Matildas, so two tanks, in turn, were lowered over the bank by hitching the cable to another tank on top as an anchor. This tank let the two down (skidding with their tracks locked) and then went over by itself, the crew, with the exception of the driver, having first dismounted. The surface of the slope was earth and soft coral and, as the angle of descent was about 70 degrees and extended down for about 13 metres, the tank hit the bottom with a bump, causing damage to an idler.
When the tanks caught up with the infantry again they assisted in the attack on and capture of Kwamkwam on the 2nd. The forward company pushed on to a track junction 600 metres south of Sialum on the same day. During these operations there was constant patrolling by other units to the left of the inland flank of the coastal drive. On the night of 2-3 January, for example, several enemy parties, moving down a track from Malasa, which was seven kilometres west of Nuzen, were met by patrols and driven back into the hills.
The advance continued against slight opposition on 3 January, past Sialum to the Sanga River (not to be confused with the Sanga River which flows into the sea at Cape Sibida), Dallman River on 6 January and Kelanoa on 7 January.
On the open plain beyond Sialum the infantry sighted a "carrier train" or line of native New Guinean carriers, under Japanese control, making its way up a pass over the coastal ridge at a range of about 2,000 metres. While an infantry mortar team cursed fluently and dropped a few bombs a long way short of the target, two tanks of 4 Troop, by a combination of open sight and indirect fire, landed high explosive amongst them, causing them to disappear into the back country at their best speed.
It was learned by experience that it was advisable to have a bulldozer actually attached to the tank detachment as there were many hold-ups due to the bulldozer being recalled to make tracks suitable for jeeps. In most cases, however, the jeeps just followed the tank route all the time. The only occasion during these A Squadron operations on which engineer bridging equipment was used, was at the Sanboro River, just east of Kelanoa, to which a box girder was brought by L.C.M. On all other occasions coconut logs, a bulldozer and explosives were all that were used to form the necessary crossing.
From the Sanboro River, Bartlett's 4 Troop was taken by barge to the Buri River near Scharnhorst Point where, on 9 January, they went into action with a patrol of the 2/17th Battalion. Strong resistance was being encountered from approximately 50 Japs, who were holding a position in the timbered creek a kilometre south of Scharnhorst Point. After heavy artillery preparation the position was attacked with covering fire from the Matildas' Besas and captured. Later when returning along the track one of 4 Troop's tanks had a track blown off by a Jap land mine which had been laid after the patrol had moved forward.
On the same day, 9 January, the Ist Tank Battalion's advanced headquarters was moved forward to Kelanoa.
No. 4 Troop was in action with the 2/17th again on the 10th and 11th and returned to leaguer on the south side of the Buri River. Three kilometres to the west of this position was Gneisenau Point where the tanks finally came to a halt. At this point a gorge, about 120 metres deep and very wide, provided an insurmountable obstacle.
On the eastern side of the gorge the country was fairly flat and open and covered with kunai. A high ridge ran in at an angle from the mouth of the gorge and formed a sort of large triangular pen. At this point the Japs could have made a firm stand with anti-tank guns on the slopes of the ridge and strong machine gun posts against an infantry attack on the flat. This would have meant either a pitched battle or an outflanking movement of many kilometres through dense jungle over the mountains. Instead, however, the Japs simply mined the narrow strip where the ridge met the cliff at the mouth of the gorge, did not cover the field with fire, and relied on a few snipers only to hold up the advance, in which they were unsuccessful.
On 12 January artillery shelled Sio, about nine kilometres west of Gneisenau Point. Patrols reached Sio Mission on the 14th and captured it on the 15th. That was the gth Division's final objective and it was then relieved by the 5th Division. On January 16 the tanks which were in the forward area moved back to the Dallman River, preparatory to returning by barge to Sialum, at which place they (four troops) were concentrated on the 20th. They were then under the command of the 5th Division.
On January 24 the commanding officer was evacuated with dengue fever and six days later the adjutant was evacuated with malaria, Lieutenant J. W. M. Carson becoming acting adjutant.
Orders were received on 29 January for the battalion group, less B Squadron, to concentrate in the Bonga-Gusika-Wareo Track area and headquarters moved there from Kelanoa on 2 February. B Squadron, of course, was still at Soputa with a detachment at Milne Bay to look after its tanks. It became apparent as the 8th Brigade, part of the 5th Division, advanced up the coast, that no further organised Jap resistance would be met, and on 7 February the forward tanks of A Squadron, less one troop, were ordered to move back to Gusika. Later in the month the remaining troop also returned.
PV Vernon Royal New South Wales Lancers 1885–1985 Parramatta 1985
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