The Kokoda Track | Australians in World War II | The Pacific War

Exploring the site of the battle fought by Australians in World War II

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  • New Guineans on the Kokoda Track

    Sergeant Sanopa thumbnail

    The great majority of the 20,000 New Guineans who participated in the campaign did so as carriers of supplies for the Allies, though 800 men from the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Royal Papuan Constabulary fought against the Japanese in 1942. more ...

  • Animated Battle Maps

    Animated Battle Maps thumbnail

    There were a number of key battles in the Papuan campaign. In the initial stages the Australians were forced to withdraw on numerous occasions, but as the tide turned they they were able to push the Japanese back to Gona and the coast. more ...

  • A Kokoda Timeline

    Kokoda Timeline thumbnail

    On July 7 1942 Australian troops (Maroubra Force) began operations along the Kokoda track. On July 21 Japanese forces landed near Buna and Gona on the north-east shore of Papua New Guinea. View an interactive timeline of the Kokoda campaign within the larger Pacific War. more ...

  • Track or Trail?

    Native bearers carrying wounded thumbnail

    Kokoda track or the Kokoda trail? The official name is the Kokoda trail, but this term is rarely used in Australia. Pre-war documents referred to it as the 'overland mail route' and the 'Buna road' . Locally it is now called the Kokoda dala or Kokoda road and 'Kokoda road' was sometimes used during the war. more ...

  • Why Port Moresby?

    Painting of Japanese bombing of Port Moresby thumbnail

    Port Moresby was important because any Allied attack north through New Guinea towards Rabaul required Port Moresby as a base. Similarly for any attack south towards Australia, the Japanese required Port Moresby. more ...

  • A Fighting Retreat

    Lieutenant Colonel William Taylor Owen thumb

    At the first of two engagements at Kokoda the Japanese defeated Lieutenant Colonel Owen's force and captured the airstrip from which they expected to receive supplies from Rabaul. The combined Papuan/Australian force fell back to Deniki. more ...

  • The Stand at Isurava

    Soldiers of 2/14th Infantry Battalion thumbnail

    In late August both the Australians and the Japanese were greatly reinforced and prepared for a decisive battle at Isurava. While the Japanese were victorious they failed to achieve their main objective - the total destruction of Maroubra Force. more ...

  • Retaking Kokoda

    Kokoda Plateau

    In the morning fog on 25 October 1942, while the two armies fought at Eora-Templeton's 25 km to the south, Winkle, having come from an Australian patrol base in the Yodda valley, crossed the Kokoda airstrip and entered Kokoda Government Station. more ...

  • The Decisive Moment

    Australian burial party thumbnail

    As a result of the decisive defeat suffered by the Japanese at Oivi-Gorari they abandoned their plan to take Port Moresby and turned their attention to holding their base at Buna-Gona. The Japanese cut through the surrounding Australian infantry and retreated to the coast. more ...

  • Casualties

    Casualties of war thumbnail

    Casualty statistics are not reliable in every category. Numbers for those killed in action are accurate but Australians evacuated sick during the campaign can only be estimated. The situation is much worse when assessing the losses of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. more ...

The Japanese Besieged - the Battle of the Beachheads: Buna, Gona, Sanananda

Overview

From mid-November 1942 to the end of January 1943 the Australians and the Americans reduced the Japanese base in the Gona-Buna-Sanananda area. Called the Battle of Buna-Gona this three month struggle had the characteristics of a siege...

18th Australian Infantry Brigade, 2/6th Australian Armoured Regiment; Australian infantrymen attacking Japanese positions, supported by tanks. [Artist: Geoffrey Mainwaring] [AWM ART 27547]
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Google satellite map of Gona ... View Larger Map

A siege is an attempt to capture a fortress. In ancient times this was often a walled city but in the modern era, with the rise of powerful artillery easily capable of knocking down walls, the ramparts have been replaced by trenches and bunkers.

All the factors that played a part in a typical siege can be seen at Buna-Gona: The attacker attempts to storm the fortress immediately on arrival. If this fails, as it did at Buna-Gona, a siege results. The objective is surrounded, preventing the escape of the defenders and their reinforcement or resupply. A siege can be a drawn out process, if starving the defenders is the objective or if the defences are too strong to assault, but often the low level of operations will be punctuated by a number of small engagements when key parts of the defences are captured bit by bit. Another classic problem of siege warfare which appeared at Buna-Gona was disease. With large numbers of soldiers in one location for several months there is a high probability that sickness, afflicting both attacker and defender, can decide the outcome.

The Japanese defences at Buna-Gona were in four parts. What might be termed the citadel was at Sanananda. It was covered by three outworks, the defences at Gona and Buna on its flanks and a third inland to its front. The Allies approached the coast in mid November and attempted a coup de main - a swift attack relying on speed and surprise. Greatly underestimating the strength of the defences they were repulsed. Realising a prolonged effort would be required they cut the landward approaches to the fortress and brought up reinforcements and artillery to bombard the defenders. Air bombardment was also used.

A difficulty was that the Allies did not control the sea. Allied aircraft severely curtailed, but did not stop, Japanese efforts to resupply the garrison. In December the Japanese attempted a relief - when the side defending sends a force in an attempt to reopen a supply line to the besieged. Landing on the coast north of Gona the Japanese did get supplies and reinforcements to the besieged but the higher purpose of the operation, to maintain a permanent corridor for resupply, was not achieved. Another classic operation of siege warfare practiced at Buna-Gona was that the defenders attempted to sally and destroy the artillery of the attackers. Special units were formed by the Japanese for this purpose.

Side Trip: ‘Starving’

Starving Japanese prisoner

On 17 January 1943, after discovering that the Japanese had abandoned the roadblocks they had set up on the Sanananda track, the last area on the beachheads to fall, Australian and American troops advanced to ‘mop up’. Many remaining Japanese, exhausted and starving, were too weak to resist...

Read more about the Japanese soldiers’ condition at Australia's War 1939-1945...

In early December the Australians captured the northernmost outwork of the defences at Gona. The Americans were unsuccessful at Buna until Australian reinforcements arrived there in late December. The last of the outworks, in front of Sanananda, was reduced in mid-January. The Allies began to consider that the remaining Japanese at Sanananda could be left to perish from starvation and disease. The element of attrition is a strong one in a siege. Buna-Gona was a hyperendemic malarial region and the besiegers lost as many thousands of casualties to disease as did the defenders.

Aware that the fall of all the secondary positions heralded the eventual fall of Sanananda the Japanese there were ordered to make a breakout and to escape north along the coast. Some succeeded and by 21 January all organised Japanese resistance in Papua ceased.