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70th Anniversary - Battle of Milne Bay

First Allied Victory in the Pacific War

Australia Turns the Corner

Not only was it "a bastard of a place", but it was "Where we turned the bastards back"


Young Australia 1940-42

Young Australian men who grew up in the Great Depression when times were hard. When the times grew even harder they put their lives on the line; the khaki line. Training in Sparkes' Paddock now 7th Brigade Park, Chermside.

They came from the cities, the towns and the farms of Australia. For the second time in a generation Australians faced the horrors of war; the memory of the Great War was still fresh, we were still recovering from that conflict.

Now our young sons were called to follow their fathers and go through the same ordeal and many would die. In the first war no one knew what it was going to be like, but in this second war many knew all too well what it was going to be like. And they were mostly wrong, it was going to be worse.

But one thing was going to be the same, the fighting was going to be done by the young men. Mostly eighteen year to mid twenties, some even younger, a sad start to adult life; many would never see their families again, many would never marry and many children would never be born. War is blatt!

This time Australia was much closer to the front 'up north' somewhere; this time it was to be at a place called Milne Bay at the tail end of New Guinea. But nobody knew that till it all started happening.

70 Years Later 2012 - Still Young in Spirit

Of the 9,000 men of Milne Bay not many are left and still fewer are mobile

Four photos of veterans arriving to go here and below.

The Commemmoration of the Battle at Chermside Historical Precinct

The Chermside Historical Precinct is only a small block of land and when you ignore the three buildings, there isn't much left. The big white marquee in the foreground covered most of the quadrangle and had some 300 chairs mostly underneath. The old school in the background had about 35 people seated on the veranda. There was plenty of room in the left background where the Somerset School parents had set up the morning tea area for after the ceremony. People stood under trees or in the sun. The forty members of the band were out of site, but not sound,

On Saturday 25th August 2012 some 400 people gathered to remember and honour the almost 9,000men who fought, the 181 who died and the 211 who were wounded at the Battle of Milne Bay which lasted from 25-8-1942 to 7-9-1942. Only 14 days but how much was achieved in that short time which must have seemed like a lifetime to the participants.

Especially honoured were the 35 veterans of the battle who along with their carers were seated under the large marquee. These young men of 1942 were now in their late 80s and 90s, still smiling and laughing and remembering.

Order of Service

The Laurie Young Concert Band, of some thirty musicians, was under the baton of Bandmaster Major (Retd) Laurie Young. They were seated on the lawn between the Voyager Centre and the western end of the Drill Hall. The band uses the Drill Hall as a practice studio and as such is part of the Chermside Historical Precinct community.
  • The Address of Welcome was given by the Master of Ceremonies Major (Retd) Patrick O'Keeffe.
  • The Hymn Amazing Grace was sung assisted by music provided by the band
  • The Ode to the Fallen was led by Mr. Rod Single President of Kedron Wavell Sub Branch Returned Services League of Australia
  • The Last Post was sounded by Major (Retd) Laurie Young
  • One Minutes Silence
  • Rouse - Bugler
  • Piper's Lament - Mr Bruce Fraser, Son of a Milne Bay Veteran

Last Post and Rouse

Bugler for the ceremony was Bandmaster Major (Retd) Laurie Young who trains and conducts the band. The band played appropriate music before, during and after the ceremony.

Piper's Lament

Piper for the ceremony was Bruce Fraser (Vietnam veteran), son of a Milne Bay veteran.

Bruce explains:

The meaning of the word Lament - "To express sorrow or regret, a feeling or an expression of grief " A Pipers Lament can be any number of Slow Air's or Slow Marches; mine for the service was "The Dark Island".

Music is an important part of any Service. The Bagpipes have been commemorating the loss of loved ones with music at services for hundreds of years. Many people associate bagpipes with Military services, this is because they powerfully touch our deepest emotions; the haunting music of the bagpipe expresses feelings that words alone may fail to convey.

" May we look forward with pleasure and backwards without remorse. "

For more information on the tune "The Dark Island" see note on the right hand side bar.

Governor's Speech

Battle of Milne Bay 70th Anniversary Commemoration Service

Unveiling of Plaque

Presentation of Commemorative Medallions to surviving Veterans

Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC Governor of Queensland addresses the veterans, their families and friends.

Before her appointment in July 2008 as the 25th Governor of Queensland Ms Wensley had a very distinguished career in the Australian Diplomatic Service.

Ms Wensley served successively as Consul-General in Hong Kong, Ambassador for the Environment, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Bhutan, Ambassador to France, Algeria, Morocco, Monaco and Mauritania. In every case, Ms Wensley was the first woman to be appointed to the position, representing Australia.

Acknowledging the Invited Guests

Address by Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC Governor of Queensland
25th August, 2012

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the Honourable Wayne Swan MP,

Member for Nudgee, Mr Jason Woodforth,

Brisbane City Councillor, Fiona King,

Judge, Federal Court of Australia, The Honourable Justice John Logan RFD,

Consul General for Papua New Guinea in Queensland, Mr Paul Nerau OBE,

Commemorations Manager, Department of Veterans' Affairs Queensland, Ms Robyn Mear, representing DVA Deputy Commissioner, Ms Alison Stanley,

Patron, 9th Battalions Association, Brigadier Rod Hamilton CSM RFD,

Commander, 7th Brigade, Australian Army, Brigadier Greg Bilton CSC,

Former Commanders, 7th Brigade, Major General Darryl Low Choy AM MBE RFD, Major General Steve Golding AM RFD, and Brigadier Hector MacDonald RFD and former Deputy Commander, Brigadier Ray McNab CSC RFD,

Commanding Officer, 6 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, Wing Commander Terence Deeth,

Founder of the Milne Bay Memorial Library and Research Centre, Major Pat O'Keeffe OAM (ret'd), Chairman, 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust, and fellow Trustees,

Chaplain, Reverend Keith Briggs,

President, Kedron Wavell Sub-Branch, RSL, Mr Rod Single,

Surviving Veterans of the Battle of Milne Bay and their families,

Relatives and descendants of others who fought at Milne Bay,

Ladies and Gentlemen, girls and boys.

It is with a deep sense of privilege, and with an equally deep sense of admiration and gratitude, that I join you today for this memorial service and ceremony to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay. I thank and compliment the Chairman and Trustees of the 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust for their effort in organising this commemoration and for their ongoing commitment to preserving the history and making the important story of Milne Bay better known - as it deserves to be.

The Importance of the Battle of Milne Bay

This map is part of the Milne Bay Memorial at Nundah, Brisbane and is used with permission of the Nundah Northgate Sub-branch RSL. It graphically shows just how close the the Japanese Army got to Australia and Queensland in particular; it was only a few hours flight from Cairns. Milne Bay was a deep water harbour which the Japanese wanted as part of their invasion of New Guinea. They wanted to get to Port Moresby and link up with their forces coming over the Owen Stanley Range via Kokoda.

Over the seventy years since the veterans present today endured and survived the appalling conditions at Milne Bay, and helped deliver a critical victory for the Allies, other campaigns, other battles, other points of action in the Second World War in the Pacific have become more familiar to most Australians - Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, for example - and most obviously, in the Papua Campaign, Kokoda - a name that has entered the lexicon; become part of the legend of the Aussie fighting spirit and a byword for bravery and challenge.

Yet Milne Bay - the Battle of Milne Bay - belongs in that legendary company. It represented the most enormous challenge from beginning to end - a logistical nightmare; a tough terrain of thick jungle and scrub, mangrove and sago swamp, an unforgiving climate, with its relentless rain and sucking mud for the men on the ground, and for the flyers, the steep mountains, low level cloud and swirling mists in the air, and when they landed and took off, that same sucking mud dragging them down.

And from beginning to end, it is a remarkable and absorbing story - about leadership, good and bad, about mistakes, setbacks and successes, about the savagery of war (to quote my husband's Uncle Frank, one of the veterans here today) "with no quarter given or taken" - and about its purpose - to win.
And win they did, securing an important victory of considerable strategic and psychological importance. The military historians have described it as: "The first time that Japanese forces had been defeated on land, shattering the myth of Japanese invincibility built up after a succession of victories across South East Asia", and again: "The first Japanese defeat on land; on a battleground of their choosing".

The soldiers' assessment was more simple: Milne Bay was "Where we turned them back" - although, as you can imagine, their vernacular was a little more graphic and explicit! Not only was it "a bastard of a place", but it was "Where we turned the bastards back".

And it wasn't just a matter of turning them back - the battle also represented a turning point -for Australian forces and for the Allies. The fact that the Allied forces at Milne Bay were predominantly Australian gave a boost to the morale of Australian servicemen and civilians alike. Fought on land, on sea and in the air, it was a triumph for both the battle-hardened soldiers of the 18th Brigade, veterans of the Middle East, but also - perhaps especially - for Queensland's own Seventh Militia Brigade under the command of (a Victorian) Brigadier John 'Paddocks' Field.

The Men of Milne Bay

The Seventh Brigade, made up of the 9th Moreton Battalion, the 25th Darling Downs and the 61st Queensland Cameron Highlanders, were largely untrained for what they were about to face at dawn on that Tuesday morning in 1942, when the Japanese launched their attack at Milne Bay, intent on establishing an advanced operating base that could support their thrust along the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby and beyond.

The ensuing battle lasted until the 7th of September, fought at close quarters (and remember - "no quarter given or taken") in that torrential tropical rain through the mud and slush, the soldiers plagued by malaria and other tropical diseases. These young Australians struggled to defend the deep water harbour and its three vital airfields.

Had the Japanese won the battle, as they fully expected to do, they would have had just the base they needed not only to push home an attack on Port Moresby, but to secure control of the Coral Sea and launch a serious assault on Australia. That's why I used the word 'gratitude' at the outset. We owe a great debt to the nearly 9,000 Allied Forces who fought this battle, who blocked those ambitions by dealing a decisive blow to an enemy that had never before tasted defeat. Setbacks - yes - but never defeat; never before had they had to withdraw completely or abandon a strategic objective, and we owe an even greater debt to the 167 Australians killed or missing and the 206 wounded in the battle and, alongside them, from the small American contingent of engineers and an anti-aircraft battery, a further 14 lives lost and 5 wounded. As we pay tribute today to the surviving veterans of Milne Bay and honour their service, so too, do we honour and mourn those who did not survive.

In just a moment, as part of that tribute, it will be my privilege to present commemorative medallions to the surviving veterans, but before I do, I wish to make two further points about the Battle of Milne Bay - about two very significant factors in its success.

The Outstanding Leadership of Major General Cyril Clowes

Major General Cyril Clowes who led the men of Milne Bay to victory in spite of the remote control of HQ which may have been in Brisbane. (Thanks to Wikipedia and Australian War Memorial)

The first I make is about the Commander of Milne Force - Queenslander, Warwick-born, Major General Cyril Clowes, very conscious of the presence in the audience of his daughter, Ms Lis Blake. His command - his decisions - were of the utmost importance in winning this battle.

Known as 'Silent Cyril', General Clowes was a highly experienced and highly decorated (CBE, DSO, MC) professional soldier, a veteran of both Gallipoli and the Western Front in the Great War. As his nickname suggests, he was a laconic man who said little to people he knew well and even less to those he didn't.
What was needed to halt the Japanese and the frightening speed with which they were moving down through Asia and the Pacific was a measured, tactical plan, executed with coolness and courage. And this is what Clowes delivered.

Despite carping instructions and messages from a Headquarters in Australia telling him to attack, General Clowes, shrewdly and with determination and that characteristic coolness, stuck to his defensive plan, maintaining a decisive grip on the battle throughout. The turning point of the battle came when he appreciated that the Japanese were unable to transport any forces to threaten the flanks or rear of the Australian positions. The destruction of the landing barges on Goodenough Island and in Milne Bay by the RAAF having limited the Japanese very effectively to just one line of attack, he was able to commit the full strength of his brigades to forcing the Japanese back to their initial landing point.

His soldiers fought the Japanese to a standstill. He had been right all along and wise - and courageous - not to pay too much heed to a distant HQ staffed by people who had no idea of the conditions the Australians faced.

Instead of being lauded for his leadership, however, he was relieved of his command amidst some particularly egregious, inaccurate and ill-informed criticism of him and of the performance of Australian soldiers. I am happy to say that in more informed times, both the maligning of our troops and the criticism of Clowes have been resoundingly discredited. As his Chief of Staff, Colonel Fred Chilton put it: "The only thing I think he can be criticised for, is his lack of public relations - for not sending back phoney reports about the wonderful job he was doing ... his reports were confined to purely military operations ..."
And those reports, I must say, make absorbing reading, leaving me in great admiration (to use another of the words I began with) of this modest Queenslander - and deeply sad that his leadership was not acknowledged as it should have been at the time.

The RAAF's Finest Forgotten Hour

'Those daring young men in their flying machines' flew over the hills and under the clouds to frustrate the Japanese by smashing their landing barges. By day they ruled the air and pinned down the enemy who had to hide in the jungle and fight by night. At night the Japanese navy would come into the bay to shell the Australian positions, or where they thought the Australians were. Neither side seemed to know just where the other side was until they collided and then in was 'no quarter'. (Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

I said I wanted to underline two key factors that helped determine the outcome of the Battle of Milne Bay. In all the reading I have done about it (and I have been reading and reading) one of the most striking things is the role of the RAAF and the really effective (unprecedented according to some reports) interaction between the RAAF and the Army. The performance in particular of the two P40 Kittyhawk Squadrons: 75 Squadron and 76 Squadron, which had been formed at Archerfield (Brisbane), was extraordinary. We all know that the Australian Army 'won its spurs' on the beaches at Gallipoli; what is less well known perhaps, is that there is a belief among many in the RAAF that Milne Bay was 'their Gallipoli'. I have also seen it described as the RAAF's "finest forgotten hour".

The aircrew and the ground crew worked under almost unimaginable conditions, defending their three airfields by night, while at the same time trying to repair aircraft and runways. Then as day broke each morning it was "wheels in the well and guns armed" as they picked their way through atrocious weather and perilous terrain to undertake some of the finest ground attack operations ever performed - either before or since. They were truly magnificent. General Clowes reported that he believed the actions of 75 and 76 Squadrons particularly on that first day exactly seventy years ago today - 25th August - were a decisive factor in the ultimate victory.

Finally Recognition of the Great Victory

As I say, Australians, then and now, have much to be grateful for to the men who fought at Milne Bay. And if some of the Australian and American commanders of the time failed to appreciate just how much was owed them and how significant a victory it was, there were others who did, and I give the last word to that great soldier and leader, Field-Marshal Sir William Slim, who was at the time, the British Commander in Burma. Slim was greatly encouraged by the news from Milne Bay:

"We were helped too, by the very cheering piece of news that now reached us, and of which, as a morale raiser, I made great use. In August and September 1942, Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australian, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the allies, it was the Australian soldiers who broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember."

Hail to the Victors of Milne Bay

The men who turned back the enemy in 1942 are still the same men in 2012. Their bodies may be bowed but their spirit still burns bright, their achievement is enshrined in our hearts. "When the tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart, there still remains their ancient sacrifice, the humble and contrite hearts." (Adapted from Kipling.)

And, so, Ladies and Gentlemen, on this 70th anniversary, do we all have cause to remember and to thank and to honour all who helped to win the battle of Milne Bay.

On behalf of all Queenslanders, I thank them and I pay tribute to them. Indeed, with the Deputy Prime Minister present, I believe I can express thanks and pay tribute on behalf of all Australians. And I now unveil this plaque in their honour.

Link to Wikipedia - Battle of Milne Bay

Unveiling the Memorial Plaque

After unveiling the plaque the Governor and Major O'Keeffe lead the crowd in applause of the veterans present and distant.

The Memorial Plaque is now mounted inside the Headquarters of the 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust.

Medallion and Milne Bay Graves Marker

The medallion was specially struck for the 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust. Only a limited number were struck for those veterans who signified that they would attend the Memorial Ceremony.

Each 50mm medallion is hung on a special ribbon around the wearer's neck. Each one was placed on a veteran by the Governor on the 70th Anniversary of the opening day of the battle.

This image is an original taken at the site of the grave at Milne Bay. In World War II there was no bringing the bodies of the fallen back to Australia, it was not in our tradition and it was not practical as there were 30,000.

The diggers buried their mates and the enemy on the spot where they fought and died.

Presentation of the Medallions

The Governor, assisted by two Australian Army Cadets, one male carrying the medallions and one female carrying the veterans' names presented each old digger with his medallion.

This involved much squeezing along rows, climbing over knees, shaking hands, laughing, chatting, smiling and making a very personal presentation to each veteran.

It was deeply moving to watch each old soldier bow his head to let the governor carefully hang the beribboned medallion around his neck.

And she did this 35 times; she really earned her cup of tea on that memorable morning.

between a seemingly chaotic but very highly

The Governor Presents the Veterans with their Medallions.

Deputy Prime Minister's Address

Mr. Wayne Swan MP, Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Commonwealth of Australia

Wayne Swan's speech at the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay (25-8-1942 till 7-9-1942)

Scale and Importance of the battle

There were many moments in the Second World War when the fate of millions hung in the balance, and when the tide turned in crucial ways. The Battle of Milne Bay, fought seventy years ago, was one of those moments. By the scale of the events taking place in El Alamein, or Guadalcanal, or over the skies of Germany, it was not a large battle in terms of the number of soldiers on the ground. But it was incredibly significant, not just in strategic terms but also because it was the first defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific.

August, 1942. A detachment of Japanese marines with naval and air support tried to outflank our position on the Kokoda Track.
Their target: the strategically important harbour and airbase of Milne Bay. Had they succeeded, they would have put a bayonet in the back of the thin khaki line that was preventing the fall of Port Moresby. But they were stopped by a rapidly assembled force of Australian militia troops, 7th Division veterans from Tobruk, ack-ack (anti-aircraft) gunners, airfield engineering units, Kittyhawk fighters from 75 and 76 squadrons, and Boston bombers from number 6 squadron.

The battle of Milne Bay punctured the myth that the Japanese were invincible, and also saved Port Moresby and the Australian mainland from further assault. After Milne Bay, the Australians and the Americans were almost always on the offensive, and the short-lived Japanese co-prosperity sphere began to contract. So it was a turning point in the Pacific that helped on the victory of the Allies.

It was also a brutal, murderous, and muddy encounter, as tough as war gets. On that sweltering bay, there were massacres of troops and civilians - later the subject of war crimes investigations. There were no rear lines or support troops - everyone everywhere was under constant fire and air attack. Construction workers fought with rifles; men attacked tanks not with long-range guns but by crawling up to them to attach sticky mines to their hulls.

Family Connections

It was also a place where the tropical wetlands bred malaria. Many soldiers were infected. One of them was my Uncle Charlie, who fought in B Company, stationed in Milne Bay when the Japanese arrived on August 25th. He was sent home to Brisbane, but went back to fight in Bougainville after his recovery.

He returned once more just a few years ago, taking my three brothers with him. He showed them around the Bay, told them his stories of fighting in the mud and the heat and the rain; making friends with the locals they were fighting alongside.

As some of you know, my family is no stranger to war, going back to my grandfather's service in 1915, on the Western Front in Monash's 3rd Division. In the next war, my dad fought in the RAAF, and was attacked by enemy infantry while he was constructing airfields at Tarakan and Balikpapan - roughly five thousand kilometres from home, and three thousand from where his brother-in-law fought in Milne Bay. As a boy, I was very conscious that our family life was shaped by my father's experience in the war. And that our nation's life was also shaped by war. It's something I've never lost sight of, and I've tried to learn more about as I've got older.

Duty to Future Generations

Most Australians under a certain age have probably never heard of Milne Bay, or if they have, don't quite understand its significance in Australian history. Those of us who are connected to it through our family histories, and who know how much we owe to those who have fought and fallen on our behalf, know just how significant it was. That gives us a duty to let a new generation know, too.

Today young Australians are still fighting and falling in Afghanistan. By honouring the men who fought at Milne Bay, we honour them, too. Milne Bay is one of many battles our country can remember with pride, sadness and gratitude, as we do today.

Ladies and gentlemen, lest we forget

Guadalcanal Location Map

Guadalcanal location map

By zooming out on this Collins Map you can see Guadalcanal in relation to Milne Bay. They are not very far apart and both commanded shipping routes to Australia from Japan. For Japan to control her new, and short lived, empire she had to control both locations.