The Forgotten Diggers of Wau. New Guinea in World War 2

1 Posted by - 19 April 2014 - Feature stories

It was a battle the Australian troops fought against the Japanese, and against all odds amid the treacherous conditions of New Guinea. Here, David Buckwalter remembers the little-known Battle for Wau.

About two months before the first shots on Kokoda had sounded a small group of commandos, the 2/5th Australian Independent Company (AIC), had been the first in the history of the Australian army to fly into their battle stations. On arrival they linked up with the local expat militia, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR).

Another small group of commandos walked all the way across the island from Port Moresby to reinforce the 1st Independent Company, which had virtually been wiped out during the Japanese invasion of New Britain and consequently absorbed into the combined unit.

As a group they executed the first offensive raid by Allied soldiers on the Japanese in WWII at their base at Salamaua on 29 June 1942. They destroyed a large amount of infrastructure and caused more than 100 Japanese casualties, with only three Australian soldiers sustaining minor wounds. They captured the Japanese plans for their raid on Milne Bay. One soldier with the plans in hand ran all the way up to the town of Wau in two days and the plans were flown to Port Moresby. The Japanese would later take 12 days to get to Wau.

Transport planes flying towards Wau. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.  AWM,  ID 014412.

Transport planes flying towards Wau. Courtesy Australian War Memorial. AWM, ID 014412.

This group worked in such difficult conditions that the doctors report before their evacuation to Australia is a travesty. Ninety per cent of this group were unfit for immediate military duty. Most were suffering from beriberi (malnutrition) and had malaria up to 15 times.

Kanga Force, as the group became known, were continuously patrolling in small groups over several thousand square kilometres. This caused the Japanese to think that Australia had a large force in the area, and therefore they did not venture far from their coastal base in Salamaua. Mubo, a village on the Bitoi River, was a forward base for Kanga. It was strategically important as mast trails that led to Wau passed through it. In August 1942 the Japanese broke out of Salamaua and took Mubo.

There were two main trails leading to Wau from Mubo, both following the rivers on either side of a ridge that rises some 1,000m. One is called the Black Cat track, the other is the Buisaval River track. These trails are very difficult to negotiate especially Black Cat, which goes up and down the side of the spurs that lead off the main ridge.

In December 1942 Kanga Force was reinforced by the 2/7th AIC commando group, bringing their strength to about 600. On 11 January 1943 Kanga raided Mubo from multiple directions causing many Japanese casualties during the week-long battle. Still, the Japanese held Mubo.

After the raid many small groups of Japanese were seen heading in the direction of Wau. As a total group they remained hidden and their intension unknown.

Once the Australian command deducted that the Japanese were pushing towards Wau, the town was reinforced with three battalions of the 17th Brigade. On 14 January the bulk of the 2/6th Battalion was flown into Wau’s tiny airstrip, which is 300m higher at one end than the other. Wau is very difficult to fly into as it is subject to continuous layers of low cloud, so the immediate reinforcement of the whole brigade was difficult and slow, with a number of planes crashing in the attempt.

The 2/6th Battalion was immediately dispersed over a wide area covering the two trails leading
to Mubo. The companies ended up many days march from each other and had almost no communication due to the high hills, dense jungle and poor radio equipment.

Bad weather continued to prevent the landing of reinforcements; flights from Port Moresby were being forced back. On 24 January one company from the 2/5th Battalion landed at Wau but was sent to Ballams, 25km away, instead of where they would be needed.

On 25 January Captain Winning of the commando group reported a large group of Japanese on the Black Cat trail, forward of House Copper, their route unknown. House Copper was just a hut with a tin roof, but it became a major reference point.

Commander Brigadier Moten took the precaution to move one platoon of 30 from the 2/6th Battalion from Ballams to Wandumi, a day’s march away. The next day still saw him sending patrols out in the wrong direction. They were expecting the enemy in the Black Cat area and advised the small numbers there to stop any Japanese retreating to Mubo.

Late on 26 January a message was received that around 300 Japanese were “past House Copper, via a new cut track on the hill approximately 130 degrees from Black Cat”. The balance of A Company 2/6th Batallion and a platoon of commandos on the Buisaval track were then ordered to Wandumi.B Company at Skindewai was tasked to patrol the Black Cat trail to prevent further Japanese reinforcements along the new track.

The following morning planes started landing with more of the 2/5th Batallion, and one company was dispatched immediately to Ballams on the Buisaval track. By that afternoon all of A Company 2/6th Batallion had arrived at Wandumi. A decision was made for the company to leave the following morning to patrol along the ridge down to the House Copper area and link with the other two 2/6th Battalion companies to ambush the 300 expected Japanese.

A map showing Australian and Japanese positions close to Wau. Courtesy David Buckwalter.

A map showing Australian and Japanese positions close to Wau. Courtesy David Buckwalter.

During the night a few soldiers were sent forward on a listening patrol. At about 0100 they heard the Japanese making a lot of noise coming down the hill and retreated to warn the company. Private Tom Garrett remembers the Bren Gunner Johnny Nobel firing the first shots, but the gun jammed after two rounds. A fight broke out between Nobel and an attacking soldier. As the two soldiers broke apart one of the patrol killed the Japanese and both raced back to the company perimeter.

Captain Bill Sherlock was in charge of the small group of about 100. They were expecting to defend themselves against a Japanese patrol of 300. Allan Smith was a message runner for Captain Sherlock and remembers hearing the initial Japanese mortars fired before first light on 28 January 1943: “Sherlock said to me ‘better go forward and see what’s happening’, so I went with him. If the Japs had lowered their sights a bit they would have cut us in half.” Allan was getting his first taste of battle action.

Lieutenant St John’s 9 platoon was in front and the first target of the Japanese mortars. Private Hamilton was killed and three others Private Garrett, Private Phillips and Corporal Nobel were severely wounded; local native stretcher-bearers carried them out to safety.

Sherlock then withdraw the company to a defensive spot 300m down the ridge. Estimates
of the number of Japanese who attacked Wau were 2,258, not the expected 300. One soldier noted
the Japanese were coming over the hill above the Australian position in such numbers that they
looked like ants.

In 2011 Private Eric Noakes, one of the commandos, told me: “If the Japs only knew how few we were they would have walked into Wau any time. When you work it all out, we were all in the wrong place.”

The battle raged all day with ammunition and mortar bombs running critically short and casualties mounting. At 1300, after a six-hour march from Ballams, Lieutenant Lin Cameron’s 10 Platoon from the 2/5th Battalion reinforced Sherlock’s group. Other reinforcement attempts were made from the Black Cat area in the north, but it was impossible to pass through the Japanese-held position above Sherlock.

Sherlock’s communications to Brigade convey the urgency of the battle:

1445hrs “badly in need of water and men soon.”
1455hrs “Cut off and look like being overrun.”
1510hrs “ Things very hot, any help sent may be too late. 9 platoon overrun and countering now.”

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  • avatar
    Win Morgan 24 May 2016 - 4:24 pm Reply

    My brother Private Stan Wills, #VX 60174 of 2/7th Battalion was part of this battle, being flown into Wau then as a forward scout, worked his way down the Black Cat trail to Salamua. I had the privilege of walking in his footsteps and was told by two Nationals to thank him for coming to save their country. When I saw how close the enemy got to the air strip at Wau, I asked how had he survived. He said he just ran and dug in.

    • avatar
      Sarah Trevor 30 May 2016 - 10:59 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Win – sounds like you had an incredible experience retracing your brother’s footsteps.

    • avatar
      caol 13 February 2017 - 6:36 pm Reply

      my dad fred Higgins wx14055 ws in the 2ns/5th commando squadron I’m so proud of him

      • avatar
        Owen bruce 15 January 2018 - 9:10 pm Reply

        That commando unit features a lot in the coverage of the Battle of Wau shown in the fictional serial The Sullivans.

  • avatar
    Katrina Cornell 21 October 2016 - 4:48 pm Reply

    My grandmother Olive Fleay was the sister of Major Norman Lawrence Fleay a commanding officer of Kanga Force. Just reasearching more of his war history. Sounds like a good tactician and brave man.

    • avatar
      David Buckwalter 5 January 2018 - 11:59 am Reply

      G’day Katrina,
      If you wish to find out more relating to Norman Fleay, who a LT Colonel not a Major when he commanded Kanga. Most probably best source is the War Diary Commando Double Black written by Andy Pierie who served in the 2/5th Independent company part of Kanga. The book is out of print and hard to get second hand.

      Contact me if you want any info or copy relevant pages..
      I wrote the article above.

      David Buckwalter

  • avatar
    caol 13 February 2017 - 8:02 pm Reply

    my dad was 2nd/5th commando WW2 he came back a broken man. lest we forget their sacrifice miss you dad

  • avatar
    BILL ROBINSON 26 August 2017 - 11:49 pm Reply

    I was lucky enough to know Bill Sherlock’s widow who was a client of my veterinary practice in Frankston Victoria She was a wonderful person who had an inmate dignity and grace. One day during a consultation she told me of her husbands achievement and I was staggered that very few people were aware of it. She told me that many of his colleagues felt that he should have been awarded with a post humous VC. From what I can read of his efforts this seems quite reasonable

    I firmly believe that Kokoda, Milne Bay and Wau should be remembered every year and students at school should learn that these three key battles were the time when our troops were fighting for the defence of Australia

    We were kept in the dark for almost 100 years about Fromelles I hope that these three battles will be recognised by contemporary Australians and become part of the curriculum for Australian History in our schools

  • avatar
    owen bruce 13 January 2018 - 9:55 pm Reply

    The ABC series “The Sullivans” dealt fairly intensively and fairly accurately with the Battle of Wau in Volume Eight, episodes 364 to 378 which are now available again from Crawford Productions. Each episode deals only fairly briefly with Wau before switching to other strands of the story back in Melbourne about the fictional family. They have gone to a lot of trouble to get right the details of uniforms, weapons, tactics and geography but of course, since this is not meant to be a documentary they do not use real names. They use some period footage and the whole thing is quite entertaining and informative.

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