The withdrawal from Kokoda didn’t quite turn into a rout but the battered survivors needed time to re-group, reinforce and rest at Deniki before the next major encounter with the Japs. Part of the plan was to try and ambush the Japs at the village of Pitoki, about halfway along the track between Kokoda and Deniki. The job fell to a platoon of Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) supported by a 39th Battalion section with a Lewis gun. My humble command was split between Ian and myself (four 8-man sections each commanded by an Australian NCO with an automatic weapon) with Doug commanding the Australian Lewis-gun section located in the village.
Japs cross the creek into the jungle below Pitoki
The big surprise we had for the Japs at Pitoki was the air cover - although Cameron and Greg probably guessed it was something like that as they spent most of the time avoiding any open ground in their approach to the village. Ian, Doug and I spent the first three moves watching the Japs advancing stealthily through the jungle mainly either side of the creek that ran past the native village. We had to nominate which move the air cover came on - Turn 5 - which was (I think) only one turn after we opened fire, revealing our positions. Given we had been hammered every time we had done so previously, the Allies were determined to avoid another possible pasting until the last possible moment - and hand one out to the Japs for a change!
Jungle ambush - PIB squad prepare to meet the advancing Japs
Ian very gallantly let me position one of his Papuan squads on an isolated finger of jungle on the far left, to try and hit the Japs as they massed before crossing the creek. It was a calculated risk of course - revealing our position not just to inflict casualties on the Japanese (which they did) but to hopefully lure them out into the open to attack us in time for the air support! Didn't work out that way of course. Japs stayed in the jungle and actually flushed US out into the open!
The poor old PIB gallantly inflicted a few more casualties with their attempt to 'shoot 'n scoot' but were forced to retreat onto the open ground in front of the native gardens to escape the advancing Japanese.
Despite the covering fire from Ian's 2nd PIB squad concealed in the gardens, the first squad were cut down to a man before they could regain cover.
The 2nd squad of PIB well hidden in the native gardens
It was supposed to be an ambush designed to slow the Japs down and give them a bloody nose, but it had gotten off to a shaky start. Mercifully for the Allies things didn't go entirely the Jap's way with the arrival of the P39 Aircobra on Turn 5.
The Aircobra's first bombing run
We soon discovered just how difficult it was to acquire targets from the air when they're hiding in dense jungle! Amazingly the Aircobra pilot spotted movement - a hapless Jap sniper on the edge of the jungle and let loose his 500 pdr bomb. It was deemed to have buried itself in the soft earth and killed a few trees. An ignominious start for our much-vaunted air cover!
Strafed! A Jap HMG & crew cop a pasting!
A second pass proved more successful with more target acquisitions and more hits - the Aircobra's four 30 Cals taking out most of a Jap machine-gun crew. But it was our final strafing run that proved the most effective. The Japanese had dug in their mortars and were pasting our Australian Lewis gun squad (supposedly) hidden in the village. After wiping out the pursuing Japs (who had cut down the fleeing PIB) with some of the best shooting of the day, Ian then took further honours and rolled for the last Aircobra run and KA-BOOM! - a 500 pdr right down the Japs throat! The bomb hit inside the emplacement and wiped the crew (the tube was deemed to have survived - what a load of it!) Needless to say, this gave great heart to the Allies who had once more found themselves hard-pressed by the Japanese.
Aircobra scores a direct hit on the Jap mortar pit
On the other side of the creek in the approaches to the village, the Japanese had used the jungle to get virtually on top of the concealed Australian positions. My other PIB section was divided into two squads, one hidden in front of the village and the other along the creek. The one next to the creek allowed the Jap scouts to pass through then opened up on the main body as it came up but fatally for them - it was too early! Half the squad cut down the scouts and the other half - including the Thompson-armed Australian NCO - managed to get a few more with the main body but in doing so exposed himself and was taken out in turn by a Jap sniper. This proved disastrous as with the death of their NCO, the fragile PIB morale broke and they ran.
The Japs approach Pitoki with caution
The PIB entrenched in their 'scrapes' in a patch of jungle before Pitoki
Behind them the Australian militia squad is getting plastered with Jap mortar fire.
The other PIB squad was made of sterner stuff (their Aussie NCO remained alive!) and they opened up on the approaching Japs, taking out a few more including the blasted sniper and a forward observer who had been bringing down a rain of mortar fire on the village. That was the last of the successes for the Allies who decided NOT to get caught again and started to withdraw.
Survivors of the Aussie militia section with their precious Lewis gun start to pull out
with the surviving PIB squad covering the withdrawal
The Australians were the first to pull out - after callously allowing the Jap's to concentrate their fire on the running Papuans (they could have attempted to rally them into the shelter of the village) - then followed in turn by the surviving PIB squad. Ian's remaining squad had withdrawn the previous turn and suddenly appearing where they had been was another section of Japs, one of two that had circled around behind us! The Australians would have been cut off but for the Papuans of the PIB who with their Australian officer, led the Australians into the jungle to escape the encircling Japanese. Its going to be a very long walk to Deniki!
The surviving Allies at Pitoki head for the jungle, the Papuan guides faithfully saving them from the rapidly closing Japanese - just as more Jap mortar fire starts to rain down behind!
Well, the ambush proved a little harder to execute than the Allies planned. From the Jap perspective they had gained their objective - the village - with some losses (only slightly more than our own) but we hope the sacrifice of the PIB has brought some time for the main force at Deniki to prepare for the next Japanese onslaught!
The jungle fighting is extremely difficult to replicate on the table - I screwed up the timing of the ambush on one side of Pitoki as I allowed the scouts through but should have allowed the main body too before opening fire - and revealing my position. The fragile morale of the PIB depends on their Australian officers and NCOs - once they are killed the poor old Papuans tend to rout - which is exactly what happened to my squad. To ambush successfully it would appear that in the jungle you have to literally cut the enemy down at point blank range but I confess that I haven't got a handle on just how this is supposed to work with Disposable Heroes. The strafing from the air was much more straight forward and a lot of fun - it saved whatever of our bacon was saved at Pitoki and caused at least half of the Jap casualties including a mortar, HMG and crews.
A nice bit of Photoshop-ing from Greg Blake showing what the Allies would have liked to have seen
happen to the Japs with an Aircobra strafing run (using the nose cannon too!)
Another great game and once more thanks to Andrew (who designed and adjudicates our game) Ian for some great work on the Allied left, Doug our genial host and Cameron and Greg our inscrutable foes who once again proved formidable opponents on the table!
Next game - Deniki, last stop before the apocalyptic clash at Isureva which nearly decided the whole campaign. Stay tuned folks!