Into the Mountains
Disaster at Efogi 8 September 1942
Better known in Australia as the battle of Mission Ridge-Brigade Hill, Efogi was, following Isurava, the next attempt to halt the Japanese advance. Again the Japanese were able to defeat the Australians by cutting the Kokoda track in their rear...
Plans and forces present
On the basis that Maroubra Force had been reinforced by a fresh and experienced Australian Imperial Force battalion, the 2/27th, General Rowell in Port Moresby ordered Potts to stop retreating and make a stand. Potts chose an excellent defensive position on a dominating hill feature south of Efogi. From there the Australians had, unusually for the Kokoda track, a good view of the Japanese approach as the track ran through several large open areas clear of trees. Potts was able to call in effective air support and the Japanese, on 6 and 7 September, suffered 30 casualties to United States Army Air Force bombing as they advanced over the open ground.
Normally Potts would have placed his fresh troops in reserve for a counter stroke once the Japanese plan of attack had revealed itself. However he believed that those battalions which had been fighting constantly for two weeks since Isurava, 2/16th and 2/14th, must be rested. Consequently 2/27th was placed in the front line on Mission Ridge while the other two battalions were placed behind, in reserve on Brigade Hill. Behind them again Potts positioned his headquarters with a company of infantry from 2/16th. The deployment of the whole force, essentially in three parts, one behind the other with gaps in between, was to have important and unfortunate consequences.
The three infantry battalions, the headquarters, detachments of Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, the Royal Papuan Constabulary and 2/6th and 14th Field Ambulances gave Maroubra Force almost exactly 1400 men. An Australian composite infantry company arrived later in the battle adding another 95 men.
Most of the Nankai Shitai then in the Owen Stanley Range was resting along the Kokoda track between Eora village and Templeton's Crossing at the time of the fighting at Efogi. The Japanese pursuit group which fought the battle was Colonel Kusunose's 144 Regiment less its first battalion. This battalion had been fighting in Papua since July. It was down to half strength and its morale was poor. It was relegated to supply carrying duties and did not again participate in any fighting until mid-October. Kusunose's group, two battalions of the regiment, the regimental artillery and headquarters together with an engineer company and small detachments of medical and signals personnel, totalled 1570 men.
After scouting the Australian position Kusunose determined that he would pin the Australians on Mission Ridge with one battalion while the other slipped around their flank to block the track behind them on Brigade Hill - which he was unaware the Australians also held. His artillery was placed north of Mission Ridge.
The engagement at Efogi
On 7 September the Japanese attack commenced. With artillery support 3/144 Battalion came at 2/27th on Mission Ridge. Though the fighting continued until early the following morning the Japanese were unable to take any ground from the Australians, half of whose losses were to a bombardment from the six Japanese guns. Frequently in the campaign the Australians had to endure such bombardments without having the ability to reply. However here there were two three-inch mortars which fired upon the Japanese artillery, killing and wounding a dozen gunners.
As night fell on 7 September the other Japanese battalion, 2/144, commenced its flank march into the Australian rear. At Isurava and Eora a manoeuvre of this kind had often resulted in the Japanese becoming lost in the jungle. Here they obtained local Papuan guides and the mistake was not repeated. At dawn, and with a measure of luck, 2/144 Battalion found the Kokoda track in the Australian rear in a gap between 2/16th and 2/14th Battalions to their north and Potts’ headquarters to their south. Now able to see the Australian positions around Brigade Hill, an artillery observer with 2/144 signalled the Japanese guns to switch their bombardment from Mission Ridge to Brigade Hill.
A counterattack was made by elements of 2/16th and 2/14th along the crest of Brigade Hill, just north of the knoll where the memorial now stands. Either because the two battalions had been much weakened by earlier fighting, or because they failed to realise how strong the Japanese force blocking the track was, the counter-attack failed. Half of all Australian casualties for Efogi were lost here. A smaller counterattack from Potts’ headquarters south of the Japanese was also repulsed.
The Australian retreat
With the breakdown of all attempts to remove the Japanese from their blocking position on the track, and the loss of communications with Potts, Caro of 2/16th Battalion took command of all the Australians north of the Japanese. Caro decided to retreat. The Australians on Mission Ridge withdrew to join those on Brigade Hill and the whole cut their way south, through the jungle. As at Isurava some succeeded in getting around the Japanese and rejoining their comrades but others, owing to the speed with which the Japanese advanced, spent weeks in the jungle.
Australian casualties at Efogi were 87 dead and 77 wounded. The Japanese lost 60 dead and 165 wounded. These figures are not a true reflection of the catastrophe which overtook the Australians at Efogi. An additional 500 men, mainly from 2/27th Battalion, could also be considered effectively lost to Maroubra Force: Those who, without food, marched south through the mountains for up to three weeks before rejoining their own force. None were again in battle until December. Just less than half of all the Australians who fought at Efogi were present for the next, and last defensive battle, a week later at Ioribaiwa.