Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kokoda Campaign - soldiers of the 39th battalion

Made a start with the French hussars to finish off the first regiment.  But got waylaid with the prospect of another WWII skirmish game of Disposable Heroes.  As I said in a previous post about DH & A Coffin for Seven Brothers,  the group wanted to do a campaign and were keen to do Kokoda 1942.  Very ambitious.  There will be a series of encounters, growing in size, that marked the desperate fight between the Australians of the 2nd AIF and the hitherto victorious Japanese.

The first of them is the heroic Captain Templeton and his company who first opposed the Japanese after they had landed and were starting their drive over the rugged Owen Stanley mountains. He was up against nearly 2,000 Japanese veterans of the Yokoyama Advance Force, the advance guard of the Nankai Shitai - the main force of 10,000 veterans.  The Yokoyama Advance Force was an amalgum of 2,000 elites drawn from the Tsukamoto Bttn of the veteran 144th Regt., the 15th Engineers (also combat troops) and a company of shock troops, the Sasebo Special Naval Landing Party.

For most of the fight along the track, the Australians never had more than a few battalions (at the time one full-strength militia brigade: the 30th consisting of the 39th, 53rd & 49th, but although officered by experienced regulars - mostly WWI veterans - they had no battle experience.)  They were armed mostly with old WWI Lee Enfields and clapped out Lewis guns but had also just been issued with the formidable Brens, which they learned how to operate 'on the job'!  By this time most of the 39th Bttn had arrived at Kokoda Mission but because of the conditions and narrowness of the track, they could only deploy one company at a time, so that the fighting was generally done at the company, platoon or section level. 

My contribution to this valiant but tiny force is an Australian Bren gun squad, which I happened to have acquired some years ago and had to rapidly paint and base in time for the first game this weekend.  They are in what was a mixture of their uniforms from the Middle East and light grey tropical issue shirts.  They weren't able to change for weeks so their uniforms literally rotted off and were only then replaced by tropical greens.

The physical conditions they fought in were some of the toughest of WWII.  Imagine the tropical heat of Guadalcanal, together with the incessant rain, and then add some of the most rugged terrain imaginable - an endless series of razorbacks that rise up to 14,000 feet, intersected by deep ravines and fast-flowing rivers that could turn into raging torrents with the heavy rain.  The Japanese had the bold strategy of landing on the northern coast of New Guinea and then taking Port Moresby via the back door - the series of goat-trails linked by native villages perched in small valleys in the mountains, which collectively became known as the Kokoda Track.  This took the Allies by surprise as MacArthur thought it militarily impossible!

One of my Bren gunners above is still in his North African battledress which is totally wrong for the scenario but he's such a nice figure, I thought' what the heck' - I can always do with an extra Bren - next to a Vickers, the heaviest weapon the Australians possessed.

I was fortunate to have grown up in New Guinea and even walked a part of the track as a Boy Scout (OK - it was the very last bit - but it still counts!)  Our soldiers were legends to us even then - everybody knew the story of Kokoda.   The unbelievable heat and humidity , the clouds of flies and mozzies and being soaked to the skin all the time and at night, being in the mountains, its bloody cold.

It is exhausting just to walk a few hours when you're young and fit.  These guys carried everything they needed including their weapons and ammo and marched for days on end just to get where they needed to be.   I am awed by what they achieved.   It was men like these, citizen soldiers and volunteers all, who inflicted the first defeat of Japanese land forces in WWII.

The campaign starts with the first serious encounter at Oiva on the northern side of the Owen Stanleys.  Templeton and his men, already exhausted after over a week trekking over the mountains, have laid a series of ambushes of the Japanese advance parties.  Ambush, then fall back to the next position and repeat.  After days of vicious fighting trying to hold the Japanese off - by this time he was encountering battalion-sized forces coming against him - his tiny force, with 'walking' wounded and everyone sick with malaria, dengue fever and dysentery, were by now in desperate need of reinforcement.   Finally the numbers began to tell and with the Japanese advancing rapidly, Templeton was faced with no choice but to dig in.

This is the first battle of the campaign we are going to game this weekend.  In the historical one, the gallant and respected Templeton was killed.  Hopefully we can repeat history without that disastrous outcome.  We shall see.