Seventy-five years ago today marks the beginning of the Battle for Wau in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. A Japanese regimental group built around two battalions of the 102nd Infantry Regiment attempted to capture the township and airstrip of Wau in the Bulolo Valley from ‘Kanga Force’, an Australian command, the bulk of which was the newly arrived – and still arriving as the battle built – 17th Australian Infantry Brigade. The forces of Kanga – also comprising three Australian independent companies, an artillery battery, field engineers, supply and medical units – won, partly due to an heroic delaying stand at Wandumi in the ridges to the east of, and overlooking, Wau, though it is just as true that the Japanese lost through poor planning and communication breakdowns. By the 8th of February, the remainder of the Japanese Okabe Force had been uprooted from around Wau and were being pursued towards their most forward base in New Guinea at Mubo. Fresh troops from the latter covered the withdrawal of the starving remnants.
The Japanese had wanted to occupy Wau primarily due to its airstrip, though it was not the easiest to land on, given its steep gradient. Denial of the airfield to Australian forces as a line of supply and reinforcement (thus enabling Kanga to observe and harass the enemy-occupied Mubo-Salamaua and Lae areas) was the central goal. There was also an airstrip at Bulolo, further north in the valley of the same name. Wau was also the end of a tenuous supply line for the Australians from Papua via the Bulldog Track. While it is considered unlikely the Japanese would have been able to spare sufficient forces at that point of the war to control the Bulldog Track and use it as a ‘backdoor’ to Port Moresby, merely controlling the Wau-Edie Creek (the heights above Wau to the west) end of the route would have complicated future Australian or Allied offensive plans.
Initially, poor intelligence analysis by Kanga HQ resulted in a relaxed and token response to initial sightings of large groups of the enemy. Coming as they did immediately after the second Australian attack on their Mubo base during the second week of January, it is understandable that Kanga imagined the 50-man patrols as a defensive response. Additionally, there were at that stage – 25th of January – still not enough infantry to adequately defend the Wau-Bulolo Valley and push out substantial outposts on suspected lines of the enemy’s advance. There were two main tracks to cover coming from the east, but the enemy had cut a secret track between those two, and for some time it was unknown exactly where they were and how large a force they had deployed.
Contact with the enemy was first made on the afternoon of the 27th, but early on the morning of the 28th, the Japanese acted decisively to occupy the village of Wandumi and its surrounding ridges, control of which was necessary for them to push their forces through to the Bulolo River below, cross it (not an easy task) and advance on the township and airstrip from two directions. Defending Wandumi, a small hamlet of perhaps a handful of native-built huts, was a company of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion, commanded by Captain ‘Bill’ Sherlock. A small number of men of the tired 2/5th Australian Independent Company were attached to them. Sherlock’s company was soon reinforced by a company from the 2/5th Australian Infantry Battalion under Major Duffy, who took responsibility for the fighting withdrawal, and under often intense fire and against overwhelming numbers, the Australian defenders gave Kanga back in Wau precious hours to implement a last-minute defense of the town and airstrip, and receive vital planeloads of reinforcements.
The Battle for Wau continued beyond the 28th, but is too complex to adequately describe here. As history informs us, Wau was saved from occupation, though it is debatable whether the ragged remnants of the Japanese would have been able to defend their gains unless they had been reinforced, including heavier weapons such as artillery pieces, almost immediately. Had the Australians been pushed out of the Bulolo Valley, they had a long and arduous trek over the then-primitive Bulldog Track to the Lakekamu River in Papua. Elements of Kanga Force would also have been stranded in the Markham area.
Nineteen forty-three was a significant year in the War in the Pacific, though it is often overshadowed by the desperation of mid to late ’42. Nineteen forty-three, however, signaled a move in the fighting from Papua to New Guinea. In early March, the Battle for the Bismarck Sea saw the end of major Japanese surface convoys from New Britain to New Guinea. The Salamaua Campaign, which began on the 29th of June ’43, was the first true offensive in the SWPA, and saw U.S. troops fight under Australian command for the last time. The two-divisional assault on Lae in early September, the re-entry of the former and Salamaua in the middle of the same month, and then the landing at Finschaffen and slogging pursuit of the enemy on the Huon Peninsula (not forgetting the U.S. landing at Cape Gloucester on the western coast of New Britain) saw out the end of a year that marked a maturity in Allied (predominantly Australian) jungle fighting.