The Hard Slog – Book Review
“Australia’s share of the Pacific war ended in rancor and anticlimax,” wrote the eminent historian Sir Max Hastings in Retribution, his volume on the end of World War II in Asia. Hastings referred to the final campaigns the Australian army fought during the war—inglorious “mopping-up operations” in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Hastings painted a dismal picture of demoralization and insubordination, of soldiers driven to the point of mutiny by the “evident futility” of the campaigns they were ordered to fight.
One of these backwater campaigns took place on Bougainville, the largest island in the Solomons, northwest of Guadalcanal, where Australian troops fought the cut-off Japanese garrison from November 1944 to August 1945. In his excellent new book The Hard Slog: Australians in the Bougainville Campaign, 1944-45, Karl James, Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, engages in a fresh evaluation of the evidence and reaches much more positive conclusions. When seen from the perspective of 1944-45—when no one knew how long the war against Japan had yet to run—James believes that the Bougainville campaign was justified.
Furthermore, James believes that the campaign—in which 30,000 Australians participated and over 500 died—showed the Australian military operating with considerable skill. The overriding priority throughout the campaign was to keep casualties low. To that end, Australian officers learned how to combine infantry patrols, artillery, and airpower to grind down Japanese positions prior to launching a final assault.
General Douglas MacArthur, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area, was the cause of the Bougainville campaign. During his advance toward the Philippines in 1943-44, he had bypassed large Japanese forces in New Guinea and the Solomons, leaving them to be contained by American units. In July 1944, in order to free up American troops for the forthcoming reconquest of the Philippines, MacArthur directed that Australians take over the dreary task of keeping bypassed Japanese units in their pens.
When the Australian general Sir Thomas Blamey submitted plans to use seven Australian brigades for this purpose—amounting to one-third the number of Americans engaged—MacArthur declared this to be “totally inadequate.” He ordered that twelve brigades be committed instead—including four brigades on Bougainville and one on its outlying islands. Possibly MacArthur was offended by the implication that a relatively small Australian force could accomplish the same task as three times the number of Americans.
MacArthur’s decision put Blamey in a difficult position. The Australian government was already reducing the size of the army for financial reasons, and now a significant portion of his remaining force was tied down in backwater areas. At the time, the war with Japan was expected to last until 1946—no one in the field had yet heard of the atom bomb—and if Australian troops were to participate in an invasion of Japan, some of them would have to be drawn from New Guinea and the Solomons. They could only be released if the Japanese troops there were defeated.
Thus Blamey ordered a limited offensive on New Guinea and Bougainville, with the ultimate aim of freeing up Australian manpower. These operations were not popular back home. Blamey himself noted that “a feeling of being side-tracked”—dissatisfaction at being relegated to minor operations in strategic backwaters—was increasing amongst the Australian public. Constant references in the Australian press to “mopping-up operations” also depressed morale in the field. Thus, Australian troops on Bougainville faced a particularly unpleasant combination of circumstances: their task was both unimportant and potentially lethal. Die on Bougainville in 1945 and you’re just as dead as if you had perished during the high-profile battles on Iwo Jima or Okinawa.
American forces had landed on Bougainville in November 1943 and carved out a small salient on the island’s west side, leaving the great bulk of the island in Japanese hands. In November 1944, the Americans were relieved by the Australian II Corps, which consisted of the 3rd Division and two independent brigades, the 11th and 23rd. Lieutenant General Stanley Savige, the commander of II Corps, was well aware of the constraints he was laboring under. James quotes Savige as stating that the critical stories in the Australian press had undermined morale and caused his men to wonder whether “the campaign was important enough to risk sacrificing their lives.”
Hence, General Savige’s dilemma: he had to keep his men committed to their task when he and they were engaged in a campaign that would have no impact on the outcome of the war. Furthermore, casualties had to be kept low because of political sensitivities back in Australia. Thus Savige ordered a slow and methodical advance, with a heavy reliance on artillery and airpower in order to keep Australian casualties down.
Savige divided Bougainville into three sectors: North, Central, and South. In the Central Sector, the Australians pushed east against isolated Japanese units in mountainous terrain. Savige designated the Central Sector as a “nursery” sector, where inexperienced units could gain experience before being deployed to the more active Northern and Southern Sectors. The toughest fighting occurred in the Southern Sector, where the bulk of the Japanese forces were concentrated.
Savige micromanaged the campaign. When eager subordinates drew up plans for ambitious offensives that raised the specter of heavy casualties, he made sure to veto them. The general also produced his own instruction manual for the campaign, entitled Tactical and Administrative Doctrine for Jungle Warfare. It was extremely unusual for a field commander to issue such a document, but James states that it was motivated by Savige’s pressing need “to promote caution and keep casualties low.”
The majority of Savige’s subordinates took his admonitions to heart. In April 1945, elements of the 23rd Brigade aggressively probed the Japanese position on Berry’s Hill, in the Central Sector. Japanese bunkers were then hit hard by artillery and air strikes. On May 13, the Australians tried to take the hill outright but came under heavy fire, which left one man wounded. The commanding officer then called off the attack, recalling Savige’s insistence on minimizing casualties; the position was only occupied when the Japanese abandoned it a few days later.
Conditions for the Japanese on Bougainville were dreadful, and should have been disabling. Being cut off from supplies, they had to become self-sufficient in food. In 1944, about 35% of the Japanese were working in garden areas (these farms were located in the Southern Sector; the need to hold them motivated the Japanese in that region to resist the Australians with particular fervor). In May and June of 1944, before the gardens began producing food, about 4,000 Japanese died from disease and malnutrition.
Nevertheless, the Japanese put up their usual fanatical resistance. In late March and early April 1945, the Japanese carried out a major counterattack at Slater’s Knoll in the Southern Sector; an assault on March 31 might have overrun the Australian position had it not been for the arrival of three Australian tanks. The attack failed, with heavy Japanese casualties. As always, the individual Japanese soldiers were almost insanely brave, but they were poorly served by their officers, who failed to coordinate their movements.
Conditions for the Australians, if not as bad as those experienced by the Japanese, were miserable enough. They spent a great deal of time patrolling through swamps and jungles, which were already thoroughly unpleasant without the additional risk of running into an ambush. One of the strongest points of The Hard Slog is the wide range of voices James presents, from the high command to those of infantrymen recalling the hardships they faced. James recounts a particularly gruesome remembrance by Lance-Corporal Noel Medcalf, who fought in the Southern Sector. Three dead men from Medcalf’s company had to be buried in particularly shallow graves, due to the high water table. When the men of Medcalf’s company later passed by the burial spot while on patrol, they saw that the graves were covered with writhing maggots.
Time spent in the jungle caused morale in some Australian units to break down, with men refusing orders to go out on patrol. Some units fared much better than others, and a unit’s fortunes often depended on whether its officers possessed the necessary elements of leadership. Frequently those elements were lacking: James records the circumstances of several officers who grew estranged from their men or from the task at hand and were relieved.
Others did better. Lieutenant Harry Dunkley, a battalion commander in the 23rd Brigade, kept his men motivated through force of example—his attitude, writes James, “sent a clear message to all ranks that the campaign was worth fighting.” Likewise the colorfully named Brigadier Heathcote Hammer, who instructed his subordinates to “dismiss any misgivings” from their minds and “get on with the job.” In so saying, Hammer knew whereof he spoke: he had himself wrestled with doubts about the Bougainville campaign, which he feared would result in “too many casualties suffered on a questionable task.”
In June 1945, Savige concentrated his forces in the Southern Sector for an offensive aimed at the Japanese stronghold of Buin. The attack was postponed due to torrential rains throughout July. Australian troops cursed the weather, but it may have saved many of their lives. On August 8, 1945, men huddled around radios heard the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima two days before.
Richard Tada holds a graduate degree in ancient history from the University of Washington. He has previously had articles published in MHQ and Military History magazine and here on ArmchairGeneral.com.