Often overshadowed by the legend of Kokoda is an equally significant battle for Australia’s defence against the Imperial Japanese forces at Milne Bay in 1942 and this month marks the 80th anniversary of the conflict which my grandfather survived. When World War Two broke out, the Australian economy was still recovering from the Great Depression of the 1930s and a level of prosperity had the nation on course for a strong future. The general public was also revelling in a sense of peace brought on by a false security which comes with living on the opposite side of the world’s troubles.
Little did they know a melting point of broken-down diplomacy had spilled over into the Pacific region, resulting in Japan awakening a ‘sleeping giant’ by brazenly bombing the US naval fleet docked at Pearl Harbour. Whether we liked or not we could no longer take our freedom for granted and prepared for a fight close to home, as the war Britain had been waging against German forces in the far-flung regions of Europe and North Africa for the previous two years had edged closer to Australia.
Japan made a good start and within months numerous colonial and sovereign strongholds of the Pacific fell like dominoes to the new enemy. Many of our 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) men, including my great uncle, were already fighting and dying for the motherland (see Gallant ‘Rat’, Australian Shooter, May 2020) on foreign soil but now the garrison force of our militiamen was expected to repel the Japanese ranks knocking on our door.
My grandfather, Reg McQuillan, was the eldest of two siblings and by all accounts a typically carefree young fella of the era who worked hard as a slaughterman and loved sport, excelling in his local club cricket and hockey teams. When the call came for volunteers to raise the second AIF at the outbreak of WWII, Reg was keen to throw his hat in the ring and help his fellow countrymen.
My great grandfather on the other hand, a World War One veteran of the French campaign, had no intension of signing any documents that would release his young son to serve. After three long years in Europe, great-grandfather Frank had seen his fair share of battlefield horror and wanted the best for his only boy. Yet months before Japan even entered the war our country had alternate plans for grandpa’s immediate future and in June 1941 Reg became a conscript to Australia’s Militia Force (AMF).
Preparing for war
Originally Australia’s militia units were purely a defensive force, limited within our coastal borders and not to be deployed offshore but due to the real danger Japan was posing, the government redefined the definition of ‘border defence’ to include neighbouring territories such as New Guinea which meant militiamen would be deployed offshore and involved in active service to face the threat. Reg was posted to the 61st Battalion (Queensland Cameron Highlanders) of 7th Brigade and conducted an accelerated form of infantry training which by comparison wasn’t as advanced as their brethren AIF soldiers’ drills but relevant nonetheless.
Grandpa told me of their weapons training and route marches of ridiculous distances from Brisbane to Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast. “If some of the conscripts had been in bad shape before we started, they were certainly fit by the end,” he said. As time wasn’t on their side they were the best-prepared homegrown soldiers available for the monumental task which lay ahead. Poorly clad in cotton desert uniforms and trained in the basics of jungle warfare, the men of Milne Force set sail for New Guinea and grandpa said goodbye to his future wife Veronica (my late grandmother), for what realistically could’ve been the last time.
The soldiers of C Company 61st Battalion arrived at Milne Bay on the south-eastern tip of New Guinea on July 15, 1942, disappointed to discover it wasn’t the tropical paradise it was made out to be. The wave of heat and humidity after leaving a cooler Aussie winter hit them like a hot, wet blanket and mosquitoes were an unwelcome greeting party which hampered them relentlessly and the only predictable thing about the weather was its unpredictability.
Many were struck early by disease and succumbed to malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers, a popular Milne Bay anecdote being: “If ever the world needed an enema, they’d have pushed it in at Milne Bay!” It was a fitting description that wouldn’t have been contested by those who served there. Conditions were bad but not as hostile as what lay ahead so Milne Force began to prepare defences under the command of experienced Australian Lieutenant–General Cyril Clowes.
Milne Forces’ primary objective was to defend the airstrips at Milne Bay and deny the Japanese a launching site for air and sea support in any further advances. Milne Force consisted of around 8100 Australian and 1350 US personnel and interestingly, General Clowes positioned the inexperienced militiamen from the 9th, 25th and 61st Battalions forwardmost in the defensive position to absorb the initial wave of the Japanese attack with the AIF men of 18th Brigade (many of whom had just returned from Middle Eastern theatres) in reserve for any counter-attack should the Japanese breech the Allied line.
The infantry units’ firepower was bolstered on land by Australian and US artillery while the tireless and brave airmen of the RAAF helped protect the force from above. As per standard operating procedures, the infantrymen began the arduous task of ‘digging-in’ their defensive positions and numerous patrols were conducted to gather a strategic footprint of the area before an expected invasion in August by Japanese marines of the SNLF (Special Naval Landing Force).
Prior to his death in 2011 I’d pestered grandpa to recount some of his memories from Milne Bay and just two weeks before passing he handed me a notebook with a brief outline of his battle experience and despite being advanced in years the memories he penned were as clear as ever to him. Although he’d spent several months at Milne Bay the battle lasted two weeks and the brief recollections I’m sharing here are drawn directly from his handwritten accounts amid the peak of battle:
“We were then told to withdraw back to No.3 strip, we took up position on the other side of the airstrip. The Japanese attacked the strip the next night. All hell broke loose and our fellows and other companies opened up with Bren, mortars and .50-cal machine gun. That left quite a number of Japanese dead on the airstrip.
“By daylight the Japanese had withdrawn. The 9th, 10th and 12th AIF Battalions from the Middle East took over and went through mopping-up the strays. They were a great help. After that night the Japanese retreated and we used to go out on listening posts to make sure the Japanese did not return. On the first night we went into action we lost our platoon commander, Lt King. That was a great loss as he was a great platoon leader. I was in 14 Platoon.”
Although not mentioned in his memoir, I clearly recall grandpa telling me how he witnessed platoon commander Lieutenant King being shot in the throat while returning fire from the cover of a coconut tree and the brave stretcher-bearer who went to his aid under heavy fire to help stem the loss of blood, sadly in vain. For an officer trying assess a battlefield perspective, the probability of being shot while not maintaining a low profile was high due to the large volume of rifle and machinegun fire from both sides.
The Aussies gallantly absorbed and withheld numerous waves of attacks with the fiercest of fighting at No.3 strip. Grandpa told me each Japanese assault was launched to the sound of bugle calls and blood-curdling battle cries from seemingly endless amounts of men and as fast they died there appeared to be more taking their place.
By early September the remnants of the Japanese invasion force was in full retreat and despite the Allied victory the casualty list from both sides was high, Japan’s numbering in the thousands. Not to be forgotten, grandpa made mention of some wonderful support from the New Guinea indigenous population known affectionately as the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ and their contribution to the Allied effort at Milne Bay.
As a young boy I learned that Reg’s role as section gunner armed with a Bren gun was to provide his section with fire support and he recalled that while on patrol they were shot at by Japanese snipers strapped to the top of coconut trees. I also remember him telling me how he immediately returned fire with an accurate burst from the Bren, killing one of the snipers as he hung from the tree. This ploy by Japanese snipers was a desperate kamikaze-style tactic used to great effect against Australian soldiers, knowing full well that once they fired their position was a giveaway which would result in instant retaliation.
Bren Gun Mk. 1
The name Bren is derived from Czechoslovakian designers Brno and their partnership with Enfield Arms Manufacturing. It’s a gas-operated light machinegun (LMG) identifiable by a cone-shaped flash suppressor, offset sights and distinct 30-round overhead curved magazine. Starting production in the mid-1930s the Bren became the mainstay LMG weapon for most Commonwealth forces, replacing the outdated and notoriously unreliable Lewis gun. It was chambered in .303 calibre and although providing a modest 500rpm rate of fire it became known for its accuracy and was successful in all theatres of use.
The gun included a folding bipod for prone use but could also be mounted to a tripod or vehicle and while enabling effective bursts of fire out to 500m, lying prone the Bren could also be shouldered or shot from the hip with great effect at close quarters upon enemy contact.
Like all firearms with many working parts they require regular maintenance but the Bren provided soldiers welcomed reliability in harsh conditions. So successful was it that in the 1950s it was rechambered in 7.62×51 NATO and used by various forces around the world up until the 1990s. British infantry soldiers used the Bren in its latter guise during the Falklands War of 1982 while Australian infantry carried the .303 Bren to the Korean War and the 7.62 NATO variant during the Indonesian Confrontation in the mid-1960s.
Although my grandfather never made a fuss about his war duties, it’s the Australian nation which owe men and women such as himself a huge debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice made for us and this country we call home. I’ve been a sponge for knowledge since I was boy yet he’d only tell me bits and pieces when comfortable and the stories he shared are now etched in my memory. There was no bravado or embellishment, only raw emotion when he revealed how scared he was and as an impressionable young boy I hailed my grandpa a hero – and they all were – but the reality is he and his mates were terrified and literally fighting for their lives against a fanatical enemy in hellish conditions.
Those gallant ‘chocos’ (which militiamen were referred to) didn’t wilt under the heat of battle and earned a new respect from their AIF brothers. Importantly, the Allied victory at Milne Bay marked the first defeat in 400 years for Japanese forces on land, a milestone my grandfather was proud to be part of. Despite returning to Australia by hospital ship due to malaria, Reg enjoyed a happy and fruitful married life after the conflict and regarded every day on Australian soil after his horrific war experience as a blessing and reason to smile.
- Acknowledgements: Lithgow Small Arms Museum; The 61st Battalion by James Watt; Australian War Memorial; Milne Bay 1942 by Clive Baker and Greg Knight; Turning Point by Michael Veitch; A Bastard of a Place by Peter Brune.