Monday, February 18, 2019

Battle Of Balaclava -- October 25th, 1854 "Into The Valley Of Death"

Six battalions of Russian infantry, 30 cannons, and a cavalry force deployed in the North Valley east of Sevastopol near the town of Balaclava. They occupied three sides of the valley, looking down on it. The other end was in the hands of the British Army. Spread across the valley floor were thin lines of horsemen belonging to Great Britain’s Light Brigade. The 674 men and officers looked resplendent in their blue and red uniforms, trimmed in gold around the chest and shoulders. They clutched their lances and swords and eyed in the distance the Russian guns that they were ordered to capture.

At their head sat Maj. Gen. James Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, an English nobleman with a reputation as a bad-tempered, impulsive man. He took position in front of his brigade. Despite his faults, he did not lack courage. Without a trumpet call, he urged his horse forward and the brigade followed at a trot. Some distance behind and to their right, the Heavy Brigade trailed them. It was a spectacle as foolhardy and pointless as it was courageous and heroic. The Charge of the Light Brigade would go down in history and verse, but the ill-fated attack was only one act of bravery and determination that would occur on the morning of October 25, 1854.

The Crimean War see-sawed back and forth in its first year. The Turks held their own on land, but in November 1853 a squadron of Russian warships destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope in northern Anatolia. Two months later an Anglo-French naval force entered the Black Sea. On March 28, 1854, the European powers declared war on Russia. Britain and France decided to attack the Russian base at Sevastopol, on the southern coast of the Crimea. The stronghold was Russia’s principal naval base in the Black Sea. Its capture or destruction would cripple Russia’s ability to continue the war.

The Allies assembled an army of 50,000 troops and landed unopposed on September 13 at Calamita Bay. The landing force advanced toward Sevastopol, and a sharp clash occurred at Alma on September 20. Although the Allies won the battle, they failed to press their advantage. The result was that the Russians were able to regroup. They retreated to the safety of the Sevastopol fortress to await the inevitable Allied siege.

The Allies marched around Sevastopol and secured several small harbors capable of handling their logistical needs. The British occupied Balaclava, which had a long narrow inlet. By possessing Balaclava, the British ensured that they could easily receive supplies by sea given that the siege lines were only seven miles from the harbor.

General Prince Alexander Menshikov, the Russian commander in chief, plotted a counterattack to the exploit vulnerability in the British lines. He believed it was possible for a Russian force to sever the Allies’ thin line of communication to the port. At the very least, an attack would force the English to divert forces, thus weakening the Allied right flank surrounding Sevastopol. He assigned Lt. Gen. Pavel Liprandi to lead the attack. Liprandi’s 12th Infantry Division had just arrived from the Danubian front. Liprandi had 25,000 infantry, 3,400 cavalry, and 78 cannons. This was more than enough to capture the port if the Russians moved quickly and forcibly without hesitation.

The British forces deployed around Balaclava contained some of England’s best troops but, tragically, also some of its poorest commanders. At the time of the Crimean War officers gained their commands through the purchase system; that is, wealthy noblemen bought a position within a particular regiment. Moreover, they also paid for promotions. Membership in many regiments incurred great expenses for uniforms and the officer’s mess. This limited commissions for the most part to wealthy aristocrats. Many of these high-born individuals considered themselves superior by dint of birth. Unfortunately for their troops, they had little or no interest in learning their craft.

Lord Cardigan

Men of lesser means often took positions in the Indian Army, a less expensive proposition; however, due to their lower status and wealth they were generally snubbed as inferior by officers of home units. This social divide meant Indian officers, often more experienced and competent than their England-based brethren were kept from positions where they could be effective. Despite the purchase system’s flaws, most regiments had a core of solid officers.

The real weakness of the British Army during the Crimea War was in its top leadership. General FitzRoy Somerset, First Baron Raglan, was the commander in chief of the British forces. He had served on the Duke of Wellington’s staff during the Napoleonic Wars. He was selected to lead the British forces during the Crimean War largely because of his association with Wellington. Yet he had never led troops in battle, nor did he command the respect of his subordinates.

The British expeditionary force contained five infantry divisions, four led by sexagenarians, and one led by Queen Victoria’s 35-year-old cousin, Prince George, Second Duke of Cambridge. Many brigade commanders and staff officers also were elderly. As for the rank and file, they were steadfast, loyal, and brave. The most famous unit at Balaclava was the Cavalry Division, commanded by the ill-tempered Lt. Gen. George Bingham, Third Earl of Lucan. Considered a martinet, Lucan’s first command was the 17th Lancers, which he had purchased for 25,000 pounds when he was 26. Unlike Raglan, he had campaign experience. Lucan had served with the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829. His command of the Lancers was marked by constant drill, smart uniforms provided at his own expense, and draconian discipline.

The Cavalry Division was divided into two brigades. Brig. Gen. James Scarlett led the Heavy Brigade, and Brig. Gen. James Brudenell, Seventh Earl of Cardigan, led the Light Brigade. Scarlett was a capable man who had the respect of his troops. He had never seen combat, but he had the wisdom to acquire the services of a few veteran British officers who had served in India to assist him. 

The brigade’s five regiments used larger, heavier horses and carried carbines in addition to swords. They were intended as shock troops, which if used properly could punch a hole in an enemy line.
The British typically employed the horsemen of the Light Brigade as scouts. Armed with lances and swords, they could move quickly around a battlefield on their smaller, lighter mounts. Like the Heavy Brigade, the Light Brigade also contained five regiments. Cardigan, who was irascible and overbearing, had been removed from his first command in 1832 for incompetence; nevertheless, his wealth and influence allowed him to return to active service.

Cardigan was Lucan’s brother-in-law. The two men did not get along, and Cardigan often acted as if his brigade was a separate command. They argued constantly and were frequently observed bickering over matters normally handled by sergeants.

The system of orders used by British commanders to direct units in action was simple; however, it was vulnerable to missteps and confusion. Commanders could often see the entire battlefield and would give orders to a chief of staff who recorded them. An aide-de-camp would carry the orders to the relevant subordinate. Sometimes verbal orders would accompany written ones, which the aide-de-camp also relayed. By the rules of the time, verbal orders allowed for latitude by the lower commander while written ones were adhered to exactly and immediately. If the aide-de-camp was able to clearly and accurately relay orders, the system worked; if not, there was the risk of disaster.

Raglan had realized the potential threat to his supply line and had taken steps to address it. He had deployed troops in various strongpoints to protect the road that led from the harbor north through the village of Kadikoi to Sapoune Heights. Beyond Kadikoi to the northeast was a plain that sprawled to the distant Fediukhin Heights. To the south of the Fedioukine Hills lay Causeway Heights, which divided the low ground into the North Valley and the South Valley.

Raglan’s troops had hastily dug six redoubts to guard against attack. Redoubt 1 was situated at the eastern end of the ridge on Canrobert’s Hill, which was named for a French commander. The rest were situated at half-mile intervals to the west. Redoubt 1 was manned by a battalion of Turkish troops and contained three 9-pounder naval guns.

The Turkish troops were colonial Tunisians who the Ottoman army had pressed into service with the Allies. They were raw troops who lacked formal training. Worse yet, they had not received rations that comported with their Muslim diet, and therefore they were sorely famished. Redoubts 2, 3, and 4 were manned by a half battalion of these Turkish troops and a pair of guns. Redoubts 5 and 6 had not yet been built. Each of the four manned redoubts had a British artillery noncommissioned officer overseeing the gun crews.

The Cavalry Division’s encampments were located at the far west end of Causeway Heights. Lucan dispatched patrols from that location to monitor the Russians on the high ground north of the Chernaya River.

Raglan intended the redoubts as tripwires. If the Russians launched an attack toward Balaclava, he expected them to delay the enemy until reinforcements arrived from the main siege lines. In addition to the Turks in the redoubts, he also stationed the 93rd Highland Infantry Brigade, which was commanded by Maj. Gen. Sir Colin Campbell, just north of Kadikoi. Raglan had entrusted Campbell with the overall defense of the strategic port. The Highlanders were supported by a battery of artillery. In addition, a force of 1,000 Royal Marines was stationed a mile behind the Highlanders. 

Altogether, the British had approximately 5,000 troops in place to delay a Russian thrust toward Balaclava until reinforcements arrived.

Rustum Pasha, the commander of the Turks, learned from a spy on October 23 that the Russians planned to attack the following morning. He relayed the information to Lucan and Campbell, who in turn informed Raglan. But Raglan was loathe to take action because he had sent 1,000 men to Balaclava three days earlier in what proved to be a false alarm. So when he received the information, he instructed his subordinates to keep him apprised of the situation.

Lucan rode out to inspect his vedettes deployed in South Valley at dawn on the day of the expected attack. Accompanying him was Colonel Lord George Paget, who was in temporary command of the Light Brigade given that Cardigan routinely slept on Raglan’s luxury yacht Dryadanchored off Balaclava.

At sunrise the party observed a pair of flags flying above Redoubt 1. Only one of Lucan’s staff remembered that this was the signal for a general advance by the enemy. Just moments later the guns of the redoubt fired, thereby removing any doubt of the situation.

As the distant guns thundered, one of the vedettes arrived and reported three Russian divisions crossing the Chernaya River beyond the distant Fedioukine Hills. One division ascended the hills, another was moving toward Causeway Heights, and yet another was in the process of attacking Redoubt 1. The Russian general hoped he could advance quickly enough to take the British flank before reinforcements arrived. He expected the advance to take three hours. If the Russians could capture Balaclava beforehand, it would threaten the entire siege.

The Allies responded quickly. Raglan ordered his 1st and 4th Divisions to move onto the plain. The Duke of Cambridge, who commanded the 1st Division, complied immediately, but it took him 30 minutes to get his troops moving. Maj. Gen. Sir George Cathcart, who commanded the 4th Division, took longer to get his troops in motion. He grumbled that his men had just returned from trench duty.

The aide-de-camp, who was aware of the seriousness of the situation, persisted and Cathcart ultimately obeyed even though it took him a full hour to get his division marching. The French sent Maj. Gen. Pierre Bosquet with two infantry brigades and two regiments of Chasseurs D’Afrique, which were elite light cavalry, to assist the British.

While British infantry moved slowly toward the sound of battle, the Russians stormed Redoubt 1 at 6 am. The five battalions of Russian infantry participating in the attack were supported by 30 guns. To their credit, the 500 Turks manning the redoubt held on until 7:30 am. They significantly delayed the Russians at the cost of 170 of their men. Many of their casualties were essentially executions by the Russians once they had breached the defenses. The British artillery NCO escaped after spiking the guns.

British infantry and cavalry stationed nearby made no move to assist the Turks and only one British battery opened fire on the Russians attacking the redoubt. The Turkish troops in the remaining three redoubts watched eight Russian infantry battalions advancing. The advancing Russian infantry were supported by artillery and cavalry, including the dreaded Cossacks.

Upon observing the retreat of the Turks from Redoubt 1, the Turks manning the other redoubts immediately fled their positions. The Russian guns had a greater range than the British guns, and the British batteries withdrew to prevent their destruction. As the Turks fled, screaming Cossacks chased after them and gored some of them with their lances. Although some of the Turks fell in beside the Highlanders, others ran for the port in a state of pure panic shouting “Ship! Ship!” The NCOs in the other three redoubts also spiked their guns before retreating.

The French arrived on Sapoune Heights shortly after 8 amand unlimbered their guns. Raglan also arrived with his staff and established a superb observation post 500 feet above the plain from which to observe the battlefield. Raglan watched as the Russians unlimbered their guns on the eastern slope of Causeway Heights. At the east entrance to the North Valley, Russian horse soldiers advanced at the head of 20 guns and additional infantry.

The British Cavalry Division was deployed on Raglan’s right. The Cavalry Division prepared to strike the flank of the advancing Russians, but Raglan believed they were too isolated to successfully carry out their planned attack. He therefore sent orders to Lucan instructing him to “take ground to left of second line of redoubts occupied by Turks.”

Lucan was confused by this order as he saw only the one line of redoubts running along the Causeway Heights. By that point, the Turks had fled and the redoubts were unmanned. Raglan’s aide-de-camp explained the order meant for Lucan to move his cavalry to the western end of the heights so that the horse soldiers could be covered by the French artillery. Lucan reluctantly complied, fearing the move would be seen as cowardly. While Lucan was prevaricating, Cardigan arrived on the field.

Four squadrons of Russian cavalry ascended Causeway Heights. Observing the move, Raglan realized the Russians’ objective was Balaclava. Because of this, he needed to reposition his cavalry. “Eight Squadrons of Heavy Dragoons to be detached towards Balaclava to support the Turks, who are wavering,” he ordered. The order made sense, except that it was the unwavering 93rd Highlanders they were to support. It took 30 minutes for the aide-de-camp to reach Lucan with the order.

The Russian cavalry descended from Causeway Heights into South Valley and advanced toward the 93rd Highlanders. Campbell ordered his men to lie down on the reverse slope to avoid incoming artillery fire. Either the Russians did not see them or they underestimated the brigade’s numbers. Five hundred men defended the knoll. When the Russian cavalry was 900 yards away Campbell ordered his men forward. Believing the small force of Russian cavalry advancing against him to be little threat to his veteran troops, Campbell decided to forego deploying them in a square. He felt that the awesome power of his riflemen firing the Minie ball was sufficient to stop the Russian cavalry. He therefore deployed his men in a thin line two deep.

Lieutenant General Ivan Ryzhov’s 500 cavalry in blue and light grey uniforms charged the Highlanders. Moments before Campbell had spoken firmly to his soldiers. “Remember men, there is no retreat from here,” he said. “You must die where you stand!” The cocky soldiers laughed heartily and then broke into a loud cheer. They were eager for the confrontation.

Lucan watched from the escarpment as the Russian cavalry charged the brave Scots. At 600 yards the Scots fired a rolling volley that inflicted little damage but bought time for them to reload. British guns behind them opened in support. Cannonballs opened gaps in their line, but the Russian horsemen dressed ranks and continued forward. When the enemy was 350 yards away, the Scotsmen fired a second volley. The Scots were surprised that the Russians wheeled left even though the volley felled only a small number of horsemen.

The Scottish troops wanted desperately to charge down the knoll and attack the apparently fleeing horsemen, but Campbell would not allow it. It was a sound decision because the Russians were trying to outflank the Highlanders. Campbell quickly sent his grenadier company to engage them. The grenadiers rushed down the slope and fired a third volley into the Russian horsemen, toppling a few more from their saddles. The Russians, having decided they had lost enough men, galloped back to their lines.

The Russians’ precipitous retreat puzzled the Scots because it did not seem to them as if they had inflicted enough losses to repulse the charge. They later learned that the last two volleys inflicted more casualties than was apparent. Many of the wounded Russians clung to their saddles afraid to fall on the field and risk capture or death. The spirited Scots had held their ground. They were “a thin red streak tipped with a line of steel,” wrote eyewitness William Russell, special correspondent for The Times of London.His description later was incorrectly reproduced as “Thin Red Line.”

The rolling terrain handicapped both sides equally. Raglan could see enemy formations moving about from his elevated position and send orders to subordinates to counter them; however, his subordinates positioned on lower ground often could not see their opponent’s movements. This caused them to doubt the orders they received. The officers of the Cavalry Division in particular became deeply frustrated.

When he received his orders, Lucan instructed Scarlett to lead his Heavy Brigade toward Kadikoi to support the 93rd Highlanders. He gave specific orders to Cardigan to maintain his position as instructed by Raglan; however, he added that he was to attack “anything and everything that shall come within reach of you, but you will be careful of columns or squares of infantry.”

After giving these orders Lucan rode onto Causeway Heights with his staff. They arrived in time to see the Russian cavalry attacking the 93rd Highlanders to their right. To their left, the main body of the Russian force was walking up the opposite side of the ridge directly toward the flank of the Heavy Brigade. Lucan’s aides rode to warn the British horsemen, but Scarlett already had spotted the Russians on the crest of the heights with the steel tips of their lances gleaming in the morning sun. He ordered his men to wheel left. They formed into squadrons for battle.

Watching the mass of Russians moving over the heights, Scarlett ordered his command to the right to avoid the abandoned camp and a local vineyard. He wanted room for his cavalry to maneuver. Ryzhov observed the same obstacles and shifted his command to the left so that the opposing sides faced each other. Scarlett pulled the three squadrons nearest him into a more compact formation to increase their shock effect, but before they could complete that movement, the Russians struck. 

With a sound of trumpets 3,000 horses and riders thundered down the slope toward the much smaller British formation. A few moments later a second trumpet call brought them to a halt, with the outer edges of the formation slightly forward. The British were only 400 yards away. British officers dressed the ranks of their squadrons as though oblivious to the enemy. A few Russian cavalrymen took potshots at the British, but otherwise there was a lull in the action.

Scarlett was pleased with his lines. He positioned himself in front of them. Standing with him was aide-de-camp Alexander Elliott, Trumpet Major Thomas Monks, and orderly Sergeant James Shegog. Scarlett ordered Monks to sound the charge. Three squadrons of British cavalry slowly started forward up the gentle slope toward the waiting Russians, who likewise advanced. Scarlett wore a dragoon’s helmet, while Elliott wore the cocked hat of an English officer. Because of this, the Russians mistook Scarlett’s aide for the commander and one Russian officer charged toward him.

The two masses collided. Elliott dodged the assault by the Russian officer and buried his own sword to the hilt in his attacker. The mortally wounded Russian was knocked from his horse. Just behind him Scarlett lashed about with his own blade, fending off numerous attacks. Sergeant Shegog stayed with Scarlett, deflecting attacks aimed at his commander while dealing deadly blows in return. The rest of the brigade hit the Russians with shouts and cheers.

Since the charge was uphill and the Russians were barely moving again, their closing speed was only about eight miles per hour. When the second British line crashed into the Russians, it pierced their formation to a depth of five files. The fighting quickly became a frenzied melee. The two sides were so tightly packed that some of the slain remained upright in the saddle. The British riders quickly discovered Russian greatcoats were excellent protection against the slashing of their sabers; for that reason, they began aiming for the heads of their foe. Some even grabbed Russians by the throat and dragged them from their horses to be trampled under hoof. The Russian lancers found themselves at a decisive disadvantage because they lacked room to use their weapons effectively.

Still, the Russians resisted hard, even against the superior swordsmanship and aggressiveness of the British, many of whom survived due to the bluntness of the Russian blades. The outer ends of the Russian line began to curve inward and it appeared the smaller British formation, which was deeply mixed with the Russian center, might be surrounded and overwhelmed. A squadron of the dragoons crashed into the Russians’ curving left wing. Meanwhile, another aide brought forward the 4th Dragoon Guard, which slammed into the Russian right wing. They were followed closely by the Royals, who rode into the rest of the right wing.

The effect on the Russian force was jarring. Receiving so many hammer blows from different directions shattered their morale. The left rear of the formation turned and fled. Within moments the rest of the Russian horsemen wheeled about and rode for their lives. A few dragoons pursued but soon British trumpeters sounded the rally. Officers raised their swords and their troopers sought them out. Within a short time the regiments reformed. The entire action lasted only five minutes. The British suffered 78 casualties compared to at least 200 for the Russians.

While the Heavy Brigade rode to glory, 500 yards away the men of the Light Brigade waited and watched. Cardigan sat at their head but gave no orders to support the other brigade. One of his regimental commanders almost led his unit alone to the fight, but Cardigan ordered him to stay put, stating their last orders were to remain in place. Actually, Lucan had sent a trumpeter toward the Light Brigade to sound the charge, but the unit had not budged. Lucan then sent a note to Cardigan reminding him it was his duty to attack the enemy in the flank when his divisional commander was engaged to the front. Cardigan’s reasoning remains a mystery to this day.

By10:30 amthe battle was decided. The defeat of the Russian cavalry meant Liprandi lacked a screen for his advance across the South Valley. He decided to withdraw back to the eastern end of the North Valley, where his guns had moved to provide cover. The cavalry fell back in order to reform, and the infantry stood idly by. A small Russian force still held the Causeway Heights, but it began to withdraw when British infantry appeared. It did so after blowing up the magazines of Redoubts 3 and 4.

But Raglan was not finished fighting. He did not want the British guns captured in the redoubts to be taken away by the Russians. In his mind, this was tangible proof of Russian victory. He wanted those guns retaken. His intent was for two infantry divisions to advance along the South Valley and Causeway Heights while the cavalry screened them. He quickly composed his third order to Lucan. “Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the heights,” he instructed. “They will be supported by the infantry which have been ordered to advance on two fronts.”

It made no sense to Lucan. Which heights did Raglan mean? Where was the infantry? Which two fronts were they to advance on? The aide-de-camp could offer no explanation, so Lucan decided to wait until the infantry arrived and moved his cavalry to the western end of the North Valley since the South Valley was empty of Russians. From his elevated position, though, Raglan could see Russian artillerymen readying their limbers. They were actually preparing to withdraw their own guns, but Raglan feared they would take the captured British guns. He then wrote his fourth order admonishing Lucan to advance rapidly to prevent the Russians from withdrawing the captured British guns. The order informed Lucan that the French cavalry was on his left in a position to support him.

Raglan instructed Captain Lewis Nolan to deliver the order even though Nolan disliked Lucan and Cardigan. Nevertheless, he was regarded as the best horseman in the army. Raglan knew he would be sure to deliver the order. Nolan exited at a gallop along a narrow trail and soon found Lucan. Since the latest order made little more sense than the previous one, Lucan asked for more information. Showing his disgust, Nolan informed him that he was to attack immediately.

“Attack? Attack what? What guns?” Lucan asked angrily. Nolan angrily waved his arm in the direction of the far end of the North Valley. “There, my Lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” replied Nolan. His actions and statements were insubordinate, but rather than arrest Nolan, Lucan looked across the valley and the task he thought assigned to him. Nolan also insulted Cardigan, who promised to have him court-martialed, that is, if they lived.

Russian guns lined Fedioukine Heights to the left. More Russian guns were deployed on Causeway Heights to the right. Straight ahead lay more guns. These were the ones that he was supposed to attack. Enemy infantry also massed nearby along with the reformed Russian cavalry behind the guns. It seemed mad to charge down the valley where fire would assail them from three directions. Rather than demand clarification, Lucan ordered the Light Brigade to advance with the Heavy Brigade in echelon to its right rear.

The Light Brigade formed into three lines for the charge. The first contained the 13th Light Dragoons and 17th Lancers. Behind were the 11th Hussars in the second line, and the third contained the 8th Hussars and 4th Light Dragoons. Cardigan took position in front at 11:10 am. “The Brigade will advance,” he shouted. “First squadron of the 17th Lancers direct!” He set off at a walk followed by the brigade, which soon increased its pace to a trot. Participants in the charge later recalled being deathly afraid of letting down their fellows. Discipline held, and the brigade stayed coherent and focused.

Nolan chose to ride with the Light Brigade and took a position with the 17th Lancers. After the formation covered about 200 yards, he took off diagonally across the brigade’s front, shouting and waving his sword toward Causeway Heights. It is believed he realized the brigade was off course, and that Raglan had intended them to scale the heights toward Redoubt 3. This was the closest fort containing captured British guns. Nolan may have been trying to direct them toward their assigned objective, which he failed to do earlier.

Before Nolan could make his intent clear, though, a Russian shell exploded nearby, sending a shard of metal into his chest. His sword fell from his hand, his arm still raised. A moment later he slipped lifelessly from his mount, which fled back through the ranks of the Lancers.

The brigade rode past Nolan’s body just before receiving the command to draw swords. They did so with a cheer and moved forward through a storm of shell and shot. Each time a rider was brought down, those remaining closed ranks toward the center. Cardigan kept them in tight formation. The Light Brigade, mounted on smaller, faster steeds drew ahead of the Heavy Brigade, now far behind and to the right. Like their brethren in the Light Brigade, they were taking artillery fire. Within a short time the heavy cavalrymen suffered more casualties than they had in the South Valley just minutes before.

Lucan accompanied the Heavy Brigade. When he looked left he could see the trail of broken men and horses left behind the Light Brigade as it charged. “They have sacrificed the Light Brigade!” he said to his adjutant. “They shall not have the Heavy if I can help it!” With that he ordered the brigade to halt. The trumpeter sounded the call and the Heavy Brigade slowed to a halt before wheeling away out of cannon range.

On the Sapoune Escarpment British and French officers watched in horror as they realized the tragic mistake unfolding below. Some wept. “My God, what are they doing?” cried one French officer. “I am old, I have seen many battles, but this is too much!” Bosquet was horrified. “It is magnificent, but it is not war,” he said. Determined to help, he ordered the 4th Chasseurs d’Afrique to assault the Fedioukine Heights and take the Russian guns there. He knew the survivors of the charge would return down the same killing ground in the valley and hoped to improve their chances.

The Light Brigade came within range of the Russian infantry and their cohesion slipped. The formation opened up as horses went to a gallop. Corporal James Nunnerley of the 17th Lancers saw the headless body of a sergeant still in the saddle, gripping his reins with his lance pointed straight ahead. His horse went another 30 yards before the corpse slid off the mount. His surviving comrades raced ahead. The Russian gunners rammed double charges into their cannons. When the Light Brigade was 50 yards away they let loose a stunning volley. Flames lit from the muzzles, sending clouds of powder smoke into the air as a hail of metal tore into the British horsemen. Almost the entire front rank of the brigade went down. Nunnerley’s horse was hit in a leg, felling him as well.

It was a terrible moment of carnage and violence, but then the cavalry was upon the Russian batteries. Within seconds they cut down most of the gunners in a furious storm of sword and lance. Behind the first line the 4th Light Dragoons and 11th Hussars charged into the left and center of the Russian position and slaughtered the remaining cannoneers. “The flame, the smoke, the roar were in our faces,” wrote Corporal Thomas Morley of the 17th Lancers, who said it was like “riding into the mouth of a volcano.”

Russian infantry stationed nearby were shocked by the ferocity of the attack and formed a square for defense. The British cavalry instead made for their Russian counterparts, who were still affected by their earlier defeat. The Russian riders broke and fled eastward for the Chernaya River. They did not stop until they were in sight of it. Meanwhile, the 8th Hussars stopped near the defeated battery and created a rallying point for the brigade.

Cardigan became separated from his troops and was surrounded by Cossacks. He was saved by nearby Russian Prince Radziwill, who actually knew Cardigan before the war. The prince offered a reward for Cardigan’s capture, so the Cossacks contented themselves with jabbing at the Englishman with their lances. Moments later he was saved by the arrival of some of his troopers, who helped him escape. Afterward he shamed himself forever by riding away without even trying to rally his men and lead them back.
Instead, his second in command, Lord Paget, and the surviving officers and non-commissioned officers gathered those remaining and began withdrawing back down the valley.

Russian cavalry behind them had rallied and now made weak attempts to counterattack. Liprandi sent a regiment of lancers down into the valley from the Fedioukine Heights to block their retreat. This forced the survivors, many of whom were on foot, to move closer to Causeway Heights, where they endured more artillery fire. Cannon fire cut down more men while Russian lancers ran through others. Those in groups were able to force their way out from the enemy cavalry, but most of the stragglers were lost. The only respite was that the French cavalry managed to drive off some of the Russian guns, reducing the fire.

As each party of survivors returned, the Heavy Brigade cheered them. Cardigan acknowledged the cheers while Paget and his officers openly sneered at him. Only 195 men answered the roll call. Paget later wrote a formal letter complaining about Cardigan’s conduct and resigned his commission. Back in the valley, 40 men were taken prisoner by Cossacks, who beat and dragged them before turning them over to the Russians. When Liprandi asked how much alcohol they had been given to make such a charge, Private William Kirk of the 17th Lancers said their officers had not given them any. “By God, if we had so much as smelt the barrel we would have taken half Russia by this time!” he said.

Monument To The British Soldiers Who Died At Balaclava

Raglan made no further moves, abandoning the plan to advance along Causeway Heights. The Russians eventually withdrew at dusk, ending the battle. Lucan was held responsible for the costly attack, but his career did not suffer. Indeed, he was eventually promoted to the rank of field marshal. Raglan died of cholera the following June. As for Cardigan, he was exonerated as having followed orders and returned home to a hero’s welcome. But when stories later came out describing how he abandoned his men, his reputation did suffer. All shared the blame for the Light Brigade’s heavy losses. The glaring defects of the British army during the Crimean War eventually led to reforms that improved the military branch.

The Russians, who needed a morale boost after the defeat at Alma, celebrated the battle as a victory even though they had not even come close to capturing Balaclava. Their timidity in the battle probably stemmed from their fear of the firepower of the British infantry. Liprandi’s troops paraded through Sevastopol with the captured British guns and other trophies gathered up from the battlefield. Their limited success at Balaclava encouraged them sufficiently to launch a probing attack against the British position atop Mount Inkerman outside Sevastopol the following day.

Despite the heavy losses in life suffered by the Light Brigade, their bold and brash attack had unnerved the Russian cavalry supporting the guns they attacked. When viewed in this light, the Light Brigade’s attack was a total success. If Raglan had shifted to the attack, he might have scored a decisive victory against the Russians that day that would have shortened the siege.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Marshal Michel Ney -- January 10th, 1769 - December 7th, 1815 "Bravest Of The Brave"

Napoléon Bonaparte called him “a lion” and amid an army of heroes singled him out as “the bravest of the brave.” One of his fellow French marshals perhaps said it best: “We are soldiers, but Ney is a knight.” Marshal Michel Ney exemplified all these characteristics, and so it was in 1815 he abandoned titles, lands and family to fight once more at the side of Napoléon in defense of France in the final campaign of the Napoleonic wars.

Ney joined the French army as a 19-year-old private. He displayed such daring and skill during the wars of the French Revolution that he rose meteorically in rank, becoming a general at age 27 and a marshal of France at 35. Tall, muscular and possessed of great courage, Ney always gravitated to the hottest part of the battlefield, often fighting more like a captain than a marshal. “He had only to give an order for you to feel brave,” an aide recalled. “Ney’s genius only awakened in the face of the enemy and at the great voice of the guns. Even under grapeshot his laughter and pleasantries seemed to defy the death all around him.” The troops idolized Ney and nicknamed him le Rougeaud (“the Ruddy”), because his complexion turned deep red in the heat of battle.

Ney became one of Napoléon’s best marshals, and he played a critical role in nearly all of the emperor’s greatest victories. Yet it was in defeat Ney achieved immortality, during his command of the rear guard during the agonizing French retreat from Moscow in 1812. Napoléon relied heavily on Ney during the final campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, but when Paris fell in April 1814, Ney joined the other marshals in forcing Napoléon to abdicate and accept exile in order to secure peace.
But it was a peace that would not last.

With Napoléon gone calm returned to France, and with it the deposed Bourbon dynasty. King Louis XVIII sought to win Ney’s support by retaining him as a marshal of France and recognizing his imperial titles of prince and duke. Yet while Ney retained his noble status, he was the son of a cooper, and his wife, Aglaè, a former washerwoman. The haughty émigré aristocrats scarcely concealed their contempt for Ney, and the women at court routinely insulted his wife. The Bourbons also mistreated Ney’s beloved army, purging the veteran officer corps and placing aristocratic fops in senior command positions. They discharged enlisted men on half-pay, outlawed their medals and cancelled the stipends they were due from those decorations.

Still more galling to Ney was how the Bourbons cavorted with the enemies of France whose bayonets had placed the dynasty back on the throne over the corpses of his soldiers. Ney began to doubt his decision to force Napoléon’s abdication, and he was not alone, as discontent grew rapidly throughout France. Then on March 1, 1815, came the electrifying news that Napoléon had escaped from exile and landed in France to reclaim the throne.

Napoléon’s return shocked all of Europe, while the people and army of France began to rally to the emperor’s standard in large numbers. As Napoléon marched toward Paris, entire regiments defected en masse to his cause, and his “invasion” took on the air of a triumphal procession. In desperation Louis XVIII ordered Ney to gather troops and intercept Napoléon before he reached the capital. Ney feared the emperor’s return would provoke civil war and declared he would bring Napoléon back to Paris “in an iron cage” if necessary.

Yet within days of this bombastic statement Ney’s doubts returned. He detested the aristocrats and remarked, “By comparison with [Napoléon] these Bourbons are pygmies! No wonder I nearly died for him so many times in battle.” He knew that to support Napoléon would mean risking all he had, but it was the emperor who had given him the titles and lands, and the bonds of loyalty forged in the flames of battle were strong.

As Ney’s force drew close to Napoléon’s, he received a message from the emperor, urging Ney to join him once more. Napoléon declared, “I shall receive you as I did after the Battle of the Moskowa.” The reference was to an action during the 1812 Battle of Borodino, in which Ney had led the great attacks that captured the Russian defensive works and for which Napoléon awarded Ney the title Prince de la Moskowa. For the teetering marshal the remark was a tipping point.

The following morning Ney addressed his command: “Officers, sub-officers and soldiers, the cause of the Bourbons is lost forever! The legitimate dynasty that the French nation has adopted is about to remount the throne. It is the Emperor Napoléon, our sovereign, who alone has the right to rule over our beautiful country!” The troops exploded with excitement, crying out “Vive l’Empereur!” as they tore from their uniforms the white cockades symbolizing loyalty to the Bourbons and hurled them into the dust. Ney raised his sword and shouted, “Soldiers! I have often led you to victory. Now I lead you to join that immortal phalanx with which Emperor Napoléon approaches Paris!” Chaos ensued as the soldiers broke ranks and surged towards Ney, rending the air with shouts of joy. Ney embraced them, laughing, crying and joining in the wild jubilation.

On March 18, 1815, Ney met with Napoléon for the first time since the abdication. The marshal attempted to explain his previous actions, but the emperor interrupted, saying there was no need. Napoléon later recalled, “I threw my arms round his neck, calling him the bravest of the brave, and from that moment all was as it used to be.” Ney’s declaration for Napoléon unleashed a tidal wave of support for the returned emperor, and just two days later Napoléon entered Paris without firing a shot.

The United Kingdom, Prussia, Austria and Russia were aghast at Napoléon’s return and mobilized their armies for an invasion of France. As Napoléon worked feverishly to prepare for war, he kept Ney, whose talents lay on the battlefield, in the background. Outnumbered and facing invasion from multiple directions, Napoléon decided to seize the initiative and hit the Allies first by striking into Belgium (then part of the Netherlands) against the Anglo-allied army led by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. Napoléon concentrated his main army on the Belgian frontier and then, with the winds of war blowing strong and the eagles on the march, summoned Ney to battle.

The charismatic marshal was ecstatic to finally receive his orders and rushed to join the emperor. He made his way to Napoléon’s headquarters along roads filled with immense columns of French troops. The soldiers recognized him and broke out in raucous cheers as he passed. One veteran pointed out Ney to his comrades and shouted, “There is le Rougeaud—things will pick up now!”

At 5 p.m. on June 15 Napoléon assigned Ney to command the left wing of the army, which comprised General Honoré Reille’s II Corps, General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, compte d’Erlon’s I Corps and General François Étienne de Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps, which was scheduled to arrive the following day. The emperor placed Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy in command of the right wing, while Napoléon retained overall command and handled the reserve. Ney’s orders were to “push the enemy” up the main Brussels road and take the village of Quatre Bras, whose road junction connected the Anglo-allied and Prussian armies. It was vital Napoléon keep those armies separated, as combined they would overwhelm him. Ney at last had his command, but his aide-de-camp dourly noted, “There is nothing worse for a general than to take command of an army on the eve of a battle.”

On arrival at his new headquarters Ney found that Reille’s II Corps had just captured the village of Gosselies from a Prussian rear guard. Ney sent one of Reille’s divisions in pursuit of the Prussians and then resumed the advance north, only to run into a Dutch detachment from Wellington’s Anglo-allied army. The Dutch withdrew after a sharp skirmish, but with only a few hours of daylight remaining, Ney hesitated to continue the advance. He did not have his full command available for action, and the units on hand had been marching and skirmishing since 2 o’clock that morning. He therefore ordered a halt for the night.

The next morning, June 16, Ney was slow to advance. French scouts reported Wellington had only 10 battalions in front of him, but Ney remained cautious. He had faced the “Iron Duke” during the 1807–14 Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal and knew Wellington’s tactic of concentrating his main force out of view. Ney therefore preferred to delay his advance until he had his whole command with him.

In fact, Wellington had only a small contingent of troops at Quatre Bras that morning, putting up a bold front while awaiting the arrival of his own forces. Meanwhile, 4 miles to the east of Ney’s position Napoléon and Grouchy, with the bulk of the French army, found Blücher’s Prussians deployed near the village of Ligny. Napoléon informed Ney he was going to attack Blücher that afternoon and directed Ney to immediately take Quatre Bras in order to isolate the Prussians from Wellington.

Although he only had 18,000 of his 48,000 infantrymen on hand, Ney believed he could wait no longer and at 2 in the afternoon attacked with two divisions of Reille’s II Corps. The French skirmishers easily pushed back the forward elements of Wellington’s army and steadily advanced on Quatre Bras. However, Ney allowed the attack to develop slowly, wary of Wellington’s strength and still hoping for more of his own forces to arrive before making a full-scale assault.

By 3 p.m. the Anglo-allied forces had suffered heavy casualties and lost ground, but at this critical moment Wellington received reinforcements, and the battle intensified dramatically. At that point Ney abandoned his cautious approach. He formed the infantry battalions of Reille’s divisions into attack columns and then drew his sword and galloped along their front shouting, “The Emperor rewards those who advance!” The French soldiers roared back “Vive l’Empereur!” and surged forward.

Ney’s attack made excellent progress at first, but the British doggedly held their ground. The fighting was vicious and at close quarters. By sheer force of will the French managed to dent Wellington’s line, but failed to break it. Ney still remained confident of success, for he expected the imminent arrival of d’Erlon’s I Corps, and he would use it to deliver the coup de grâce to Wellington.

Then a messenger arrived informing the marshal that Napoléon had ordered d’Erlon’s I Corps to reinforce him at Ligny instead of Ney at Quatre Bras. Almost simultaneously another messenger arrived with an order from Napoléon telling Ney to wrap up things at Quatre Bras and also assist at Ligny. In a rage Ney sent a messenger to d’Erlon, ordering him to immediately turn back toward Quatre Bras. Unfortunately, the contradictory orders soon had d’Erlon marching in circles between his two commanders without assisting either one.

Increasingly desperate to break the impasse at Quatre Bras, Ney ordered Kellermann, who had arrived with a brigade of mounted cuirassiers, to charge and break through the British center. Kellermann protested, reminding Ney he had only a single brigade and not his whole corps. “The fate of France is in your hands!” Ney replied in a broken voice. “Crush them. Ride over their bodies.”

Kellermann launched a desperate charge with his cuirassiers and, amazingly, tore through the mass of British and Dutch troops in front of them, wreaking havoc on the ill-formed infantry and penetrating all the way to Quatre Bras—before close-range artillery and musket fire drove them back with heavy losses.

British reinforcements continued to arrive at Quatre Bras, and by early evening the numerical balance had turned irrevocably against Ney. Wellington went over to the attack, but Ney rose to the occasion, riding into the hottest sectors of the fight to rally his battalions and lead a stubborn defense that bled the British for every step they advanced. As darkness fell over the battlefield, the lines stood essentially where they had when the fight began. The Anglo-allied army had lost some 4,800 men, and Ney 4,100. Though the French marshal had not captured Quatre Bras, he had accomplished his mission of preventing Wellington from joining up with Blücher. Napoléon was thus able to use his main army to fight the Prussians in isolation and win the Battle of Ligny.

Early on June 17 Napoléon dispatched Grouchy with 33,000 men to pursue the beaten Prussians while he moved his remaining 40,000 men toward Quatre Bras to link up with Ney and strike the Anglo-allied army a decisive blow. Ney remained outnumbered in front of Quatre Bras and decided to stay on the defensive until Napoléon arrived. Wellington saw the blow coming, however, and deftly broke contact with Ney, retreating north toward Brussels. Ney and Napoléon joined forces and pursued but were slowed by torrential rains and did not catch up with Wellington until he had once more reformed his army for battle near a small town in what was then the Kingdom of the Netherlands—Waterloo.

On the morning of June 18 Napoléon awoke to find Wellington deployed on a low ridge and willing to give battle. The emperor ordered an immediate assault, and Ney enthusiastically approved. Napoléon’s chief of artillery suggested the attack be delayed so the ground could dry, however, allowing his guns to be moved and sited more effectively. Napoléon reluctantly agreed and delayed the opening of the battle until 11:30 a.m.

The assault began with a diversionary attack against the British right. Then at 1 p.m. the French artillery opened a thunderous bombardment against Wellington’s center in preparation for a powerful attack by the whole of d’Erlon’s I Corps. But just before the attack began Napoléon received information that Prussian troops, who had apparently eluded Grouchy’s pursuit, were closing on the French right flank. The emperor believed he still had time to defeat the British before the Prussians arrived and deployed reserves to meet the new threat while also ordering his “lion” to launch the main assault.

Ney was eager to attack and swung d’Erlon’s corps like a sledgehammer against the British center, anchored on the ridge and the fortified farmhouse of La Haye Sainte in front of it. The assault made solid gains and appeared to be breaking through the outer crust of Wellington’s defenses, though the farmhouse remained in British hands. Then Wellington halted the French advance with a ferocious counterattack and followed up with a cavalry charge. The British horsemen wreaked havoc for a time, but they overextended themselves and fell victim to a counter-charge by French cavalry.

Nevertheless, they had stopped the main French thrust, allowing more time for the Prussians to arrive and tip the balance.

Ney, true to form, galloped about the battlefield, rallying his infantry and regrouping them for a fresh attack. The new assault hit the same area as the first, and some of Wellington’s allied troops broke under the impact of the French onslaught, while his British regiments took a heavy pounding. Under heavy pressure Wellington decided to execute a tactical withdrawal to preserve his troops from the devastating French artillery fire. At the forward edge of the battle Ney saw British troops falling back, some apparently in disarray. He knew his two attacks had done considerable damage to the enemy and believed that what he was seeing indicated a general retreat, or at the very least a sign the British were on the verge of breaking. Ney returned to the main French position and swiftly organized a powerful cavalry charge to break through the weakened British forces.

Ney took position at the head of more than 9,000 cavalrymen and led them in a thunderous charge against Wellington’s battered center. The French horsemen swept up and over the ridge, overrunning several British artillery batteries. But as they galloped onto the reverse slope they encountered not a broken army but British infantry battalions in square formation, prepared to repel their attack. The French cavalry surged against these sturdy blocks of men but could not break them. Ney himself fought with saber against the outstretched bayonets, slashing and taking down several of the enemy.

The French cavalry fell back, but Ney regrouped them at the foot of the ridge and again led them forward.

Napoléon, engrossed in meeting the oncoming Prussian threat, learned of Ney’s charge and shook his head, saying it was an hour too soon for such a move. Yet seeing through his telescope that Ney’s attack had pierced the British gun line, the emperor ordered more cavalry poured into the fight to support him. Ney led these reinforcements forward as well, but the British would not break. During the fight the marshal’s horse was shot from beneath him—one of five mounts that died beneath him this day—and when Ney regained his feet amid the British guns, he swore profusely as he watched his cavalry once more falling back. Ney leapt atop a rider-less horse and led the remnants of the French cavalry back to their original position. There Napoléon informed him the Prussians had arrived in force and had engaged the French reserves. The emperor told Ney to take La Haye Sainte “at all costs” so the French formations could turn their full strength against the onrushing Prussians.

Ney immediately launched a well-coordinated attack against the weakened British lines and captured the farmhouse. At that point the British truly began to waver, and Ney felt he had them. He sent his aide-de-camp to ask Napoléon to commit the Imperial Guard, the last remaining reserves, to finish off Wellington. Napoléon initially refused, not wanting to risk the last of his fresh troops, but as the Prussians steadily pushed in his flank and threatened to get behind him, he realized his only hope was to finish off the British so his army could focus on Blücher. More than an hour had passed since Ney’s request, however, and Napoléon’s hesitation had allowed Wellington to once more close up his lines and restore order.

Even at this late hour Napoléon committed just four battalions of Imperial Guard grenadiers, rather than the entire reserve. Ney led them forward as the spearhead of some 15,000 attacking troops, but it was a futile gesture. They were met by more than 20,000 British infantrymen concealed in the wheat fields; on command these men rose and unleashed disciplined close-range volleys of musketry into the French. The vaunted Imperial Guard faltered and then fell back in disorder. By that time Blücher’s Prussians had turned Napoléon’s right flank and fallen on the rear of the French army, which began to rapidly fall apart.

Napoléon fled the battlefield in his carriage, but Ney remained in the fight, his face blackened by powder smoke, his sword broken and an epaulet from his bullet-riddled uniform hanging loose from an enemy saber stroke. He rallied individual battalions and small groups of men, calling out to them, “Come and see how a marshal of France dies!” as he led them into hopeless attacks. He sought death but could not find it even as men fell all around him. As night fell, he abandoned his suicidal ambition, and an Imperial Guard battalion escorted him to safety. It was to be his final campaign.

After the debacle at Waterloo, Napoléon abdicated yet again and went into exile. Ney remained in France, but Louis XVIII charged him with treason. The accusation infuriated Ney, who believed everything he had done in his life had been for France. Refusing to flee, he instead stood trial. A military tribunal found him innocent, but the Bourbons retried him, declared him guilty and sentenced him to death. When the day for his execution arrived, Ney told the firing squad, “I have fought a hundred battles for France and not one against her,” and then gave them the command to fire.

Suggested Reading: 

Marshal Ney - Bravest Of The Brave By Andrew Hillard Atteridge 

Marshal Ney At Quatre Bras: New Perspectives on the Opening Battle of the Waterloo Campaign By Paul L. Dawson 

Courage, Marshal Ney: Last Stand of the Bravest of the Brave By James Mace 


Friday, February 8, 2019

Australians On The Kokada Trail -- July 21st - November 16th, 1942 "A Ghastly Affair"

Ask anyone who was there and they will tell you that Papua New Guinea, especially along the northern coast, was a tropical hell.

An American infantryman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the U.S. 32nd Infantry “Red Arrow” Division claimed, “If I owned New Guinea and I owned hell, I would live in hell and rent out New Guinea.”

In addition to a suicidal and tenacious Japanese defense of the northern Papuan coastal area of Buna, the terrain, climate, and disease wrecked the regiments of the 32nd Division and the Australian battalions accompanying them. When corrected for the size of attacking forces, three times as many lives were lost in Papua than on Guadalcanal during a similar time frame.

More than two-thirds of the Allied forces attacking Papua’s northern coast became afflicted with malaria; losses from disease were four or five times greater than from combat casualties. At the end of December 1942, Time magazine first brought New Guinea to the attention of the American public: “Nowhere in the world today are American soldiers engaged in fighting so desperate, so merciless, so bitter, or so bloody.”

It is no wonder that a GI fighting along the Buna front worried aloud, “God help us—we’re never going to get out of here alive.” Likewise, for the Japanese, one of their infantrymen recorded, “The road gets gradually steeper.… We are in a jungle area. The sun is fierce here…. We make our way through a jungle where there are no roads. The jungle is beyond description. Thirsty for water, stomach empty. The pack on the back is heavy.”

A Buna veteran described his American compatriots: “The men at the front … were perhaps among the most wretched-looking soldiers ever to wear the American uniform. They were gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered in tropical sores…. There was hardly a soldier, among the thousands who went into the jungle, who didn’t come down with some kind of fever at least once.”

New Guinea, 1,500 miles long, is the second largest island in the world, located immediately north of the Australian continent. Papua, the southeastern part of New Guinea, which occupies one-third of the total area, was administered by Australia. Australia’s military planners regarded it as a buffer against Japanese invasion of its Northern Territories.

The interior, to say the least, is inhospitable. The high mountains of the Owen Stanley Range dominate the topography, and the area is covered with jungles and swamps. The main town, Port Moresby, on the south coast with a population of 3,000 before the war, was comprised mostly of native Papuans. There are only a few villages along Papua’s northern coast, which include Buna and Gona. Lae and Salamaua are also on the northern coast near the Huon Gulf in northeast New Guinea. While the whole area is a flat, low-lying plain, the Buna area is made up of steaming, impenetrable jungle, coconut plantations, and fields of shoulder-high kunai grass.

Away from Port Moresby, only native trails connected the north and south coasts, the most famous being the Kokoda Trail. The geographical and climatic obstacles to conducting military operations by either side was going to be immense in terms of troop movements, reinforcements, supply, and the care of the wounded.

Australia, the United States, and Japan   were not prepared for a major war in the South Pacific, which was not only remote but also disease-ridden and ubiquitously wet. For the combatants to advance in New Guinea, they would need to be able to construct improvised bridges and roads where water and mud governed.

How did the Buna front become the locale for some of the most hellacious combat in the South Pacific?

After its amazing string of lightning successes after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese high command contemplated an Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) goal to expand southeastward into the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Fiji, Tonga Islands, and Samoa (Operation “FS”), to sever the long supply lines from the U.S. to Australia and New Zealand—in effect isolating the Antipodes from becoming American staging areas and bases for a counteroffensive.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) plan was to invade, with the assistance of the IJN, the Lae-Salamaua area in Northeast New Guinea’s Huon Gulf region. The seizure of Tulagi near Guadalcanal in the Solomons and its development as a naval air base would be postponed until after Lae and Salamaua had been taken.

The capture of these strategic points in eastern New Guinea, along with Tulagi in the southern Solomons (the latter accomplished in early May 1942 by the IJN), were intended to cut communications between these areas and the Australian mainland and to neutralize the waters north of Australia.

By postponing Operation FS, the more extensive southeastern assault, the Japanese left the South Pacific supply routes open to New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand—an omission they would later need to rectify.

The Japanese began their staging moves to take northeast New Guinea and Papua on March 8-11, 1942, when the IJA and the IJN’s Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF)  landed at Salamaua, Lae, and Fischhafen on the Huon Gulf. By occupying those locales, the Japanese were only 400 air miles from Cape York, Australia’s northernmost point directly facing Papua and, by operating out of Port Moresby, could deny the Allies the use of airfields in northern Australia.

By April 1942, Allied air attacks were causing extensive damage to Japanese air capacity and naval movements in the Solomon Sea. So, from April 1-20, SNLF troops landed in Fafak, Babo, Sorong, Manokwari, Momi, Nabire, Seroi, Sarmi, and Hollandia along the north coast of northeast New Guinea to seize and construct airfields there since neither side had firmly established air superiority over New Guinea.

It was becoming readily apparent that the outcome of the Pacific War, in large part, was going to be determined by either capturing enemy airfields or nearby suitable terrain to construct new ones to control the sea lanes as well as support future amphibious landings for expansion.

After successfully completing their Huon Gulf and coastal northeast New Guinea operations, the IJA and IJN were to mount a joint amphibious attack on Port Moresby on the south coast of the Papuan peninsula, which was ultimately thwarted at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4-8, 1942.

A second attempt at the seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was scheduled for the late summer of 1942 and would be made at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of Papua where, coincidentally, American and Australian engineers had begun constructing an airfield. The Japanese Milne Bay assault was to be concurrent with an overland IJA attack from Buna via the Kokoda Trail and across the Owen Stanley Range to seize Port Moresby.

The Japanese were under the misconception that a serviceable road for vehicles ran from Buna to Kokoda Village in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range that could not be properly seen and photographed because of the jungle canopy. The IJA planners had made a flawed logistical decision that Formosan and Korean laborers along with IJA engineers could make such a road operational and build additional southward tracks to reach Port Moresby.

On February 21, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cabled General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines and ordered him to leave threatened Corregidor for Mindanao and then proceed to Australia. On March 11, MacArthur and his retinue of staff officers left Corregidor in four PT boats and arrived at Mindanao; MacArthur and staff were then flown to Australia. There he was appointed Commander in Chief, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) Theater by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall at the direct request of the Australian government.

Australian Prime Minister John Curtin selected General Sir Thomas Blamey as Allied Land Forces commander in the SWPA. Curtin was glad to receive the “green” American 32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions, both National Guard units, being hastily deployed to Australia’s defense since his own AIF troops were in the Mediterranean or in captivity, the latter after the fall of Malaya and Singapore. The 41st Division arrived in Australia in April 1942 and the 32nd in May.

When the American Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) gave MacArthur command of the SWPA, he was assigned, without a specific target date, to recapture Lae and Salamaua and to “seize and occupy Rabaul and adjacent positions in the New Guinea-New Ireland area.”

MacArthur’s staff knew that to retake Lae and Salamaua he needed an airfield on Papua’s northern coast; the logical place was Buna Government Station, with its small airfield, the “Old Strip.” Buna had been an Australian outpost facing Rabaul on the Solomon Sea and consisted of a government station called Buna Mission—just three houses—and the Old Strip. Buna Village, a half mile to the northwest, was simply a collection of native huts. At Gona, 10 miles north of Buna, was an older Anglican mission.

Buna was coveted as a future base and airfield complex by both the Japanese and the Allied war planners in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur’s engineers had scouted Buna for the suitability of an airfield there. After the Allied engineers concluded that the coastal terrain was adequate, they departed. As the Buna area was likely to be a Japanese target, too, MacArthur directed the Australian commander in Port Moresby to secure it. MacArthur was most fearful of a Japanese seizure of Port Moresby, which the enemy could then use as a springboard to invade northern Australia.

Australian military planners, too, considered the Buna area as a major threat because it was “the northern terminus of the one good track to Port Moresby,” the Kokoda Trail. In June 1942, the Australians organized the 39th Battalion, a militia unit, along with a native constabulary unit to seize Buna. On July 7, company-strength elements of the Australian 39th Battalion were 30 miles north of Port Moresby, ready to start their ascent of the Kokoda Trail; eight days later, Company B of the Australian 39th Battalion was at the outskirts of Kokoda Village.

On July 24, the remainder of the 39th Battalion was ordered to get to Kokoda Village as quickly as possible from Port Moresby. That village lay in a valley 1,200 feet above sea level in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range. In addition to a Papuan administration post and a rubber plantation, Kokoda Village also had a small airfield, which likewise was a main objective in Japanese strategic planning.

On July 15, MacArthur ordered the establishment of his forward base at Buna. Also, a new airfield was to be constructed at Dobodura, 15 miles south of Buna, where a grassy plain had been identified that would be large enough for both bombers and fighters. Allied reconnaissance flights had shown the Buna strip to be inadequate for the airbase that the SWPA commander was envisioning.

The Japanese, however, had beaten the Allies to the punch at both Buna and nearby Gona. On July 21-22, 1942, Japanese cruisers, destroyers, and transports landed a preliminary force of 4,400 engineers of the Yokoyama Advance Force (under Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama) and the South Seas Detachment IJA Headquarters, the latter which had captured Rabaul; all under the command of Maj. Gen. Tomitaro Horii.

Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, the IJA Seventeenth Army commander headquartered in Rabaul, would increase this advance force to 11,100 men with the addition of the IJA’s 41st Infantry Regiment, under Colonel Yazawa Kiyomi, and the remainder of the 144th Infantry Regiment. By August 13, the IJA would occupy the Buna-Gona area and transform the former site into a base of operations.

Soon after the Japanese landings at Buna, Yokoyama lost no time in sending his forward elements on their southerly march to Kokoda Village. This force, comprised of the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment, which would build depots and clear roads, and 1st Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment, the main combat arm of the force, hit the Australians on July 28 in an effort to seize Kokoda Village and its prize airfield.

Initially, this force was tasked to assess the condition and quality of the roads and need for repairing the Buna-to-Kokoda road. However, the Yokoyama Force, instead of conducting a civil engineering reconnaissance, was ordered by no less than the Emperor and Imperial Japanese Headquarters to prepare for an overland attack to seize Port Moresby (Operation MO), under the command of IJA Seventeenth Army headquarters, without a thorough feasibility study.

A skeptical General Horii was dubious that a supply line of native porters (32,000 was deemed as a requisite number) could be maintained, whatever state the extant “road” was actually found to be in. In fact, the Kokoda Trail was a 145-mile mud path, no wider than three or four feet, that climbed mountains as high as 6,000 feet and crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, comprised of steep gorges, rapidly flowing streams and always wet, moss-covered rocks and logs.
Meanwhile, Port Moresby was being strengthened with the Australian 25th Brigade along with Allied air, engineer, and antiaircraft units.

The Yokoyama Advance Force was also awaiting reinforcements, which were to include the two remaining battalions of the 144th Infantry Regiment and a mountain artillery battalion, which had to forcibly land at Basabua, to the west of Buna near Gona, due to Allied air interdiction and then be ferried to Buna to reinforce Yokoyama’s command at Isurava.

On August 28, Hyakutake ordered Horii to advance to the southern side of the Owen Stanleys and await the outcome of a second assault—the IJN amphibious assault at Milne Bay, intended to seize the newly constructed Allied airfield there and to serve as a base for another naval assault on Port Moresby. The Milne Bay amphibious landings commenced on August 25; however, they failed and the Japanese evacuated their assault troops on September 7.

Without a concurrent amphibious assault on Port Moresby from Milne Bay, Horii was on his own without air cover from the IJN. Horii’s South Seas Detachment was becoming severely malnourished and ravaged by disease.

In early September, General Horii and IJA infantry from the 41st and 144th Regiments, arrived at Kokoda Village in bad shape; Formosan and Korean laborers and Japanese soldiers had to carry supplies to the front and the wounded back to Kokoda Village. Logistics were a nightmare for Horii, and he was behind schedule in his crossing of the Owen Stanleys to attack Port Moresby.

On September 16, 1942, the Japanese struggled up Ioribaiwa Ridge, from which the Australians had recently withdrawn to Imita Ridge to the south across the valley; the Japanese literally wept for joy since they could now see the plains and sea around Port Moresby. At night, from Ioribaiwa Ridge, the Japanese saw the searchlights of the Allied airfield on the outskirts of Port Moresby, 27 air miles away. This was as near to Port Moresby as the Japanese would ever get.

The Japanese supply system was stretched to its limits, and the offensive had resulted in a majority of the force being killed, wounded, and disabled by diseases—malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, and beriberi. The Australians and Papua’s unforgiving nature  had halted the advance of the Japanese south from Buna over the Owen Stanley Range. Only 1,500 of the 6,000 troops that had left Buna in mid-August remained healthy enough to fight after just four weeks of strenuous marching and jungle combat.

A stiffened Australian resistance at Imita Ridge by two Australian militia battalions and later reinforced with more battle-hardened Middle East veteran formations of the AIF’s 28th Brigade along with a near-constant Allied air presence that attacked Japanese supply lines running back to Buna, compelled Horii to halt his drive on Port Moresby at Ioribaiwa Ridge and prepare defensive works while awaiting reinforcements.

However, on September 24, the Japanese high command ordered Horii to withdraw along the Kokoda Trail and establish defensive positions at Buna and Gona. The Japanese, who had positioned guns and dug weapon pits and trenches along the Ioribaiwa Ridge during the last week of September, withdrew from their positions on September 28 under attack by Australian infantry. This was a strategic withdrawal for the Japanese because of an increasing need for troop reinforcements at Guadalcanal.

With a nascent American corps comprised of the 32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions being trained in Australia, MacArthur needed a corps commander. Marshall fortuitously sent him Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger (West Point class of 1909). The 32nd and 41st Divisions, commanded by Maj. Gens. Edwin Harding and Horace Fuller, respectively, were also sent.

On September 10, MacArthur ordered Eichelberger’s I Corps headquarters to deploy Harding’s 32nd Division to New Guinea to ease the burden on the Australians retreating down the Kokoda Trail to the Imita Ridge prior to the Japanese high command halting Horii’s advance on the Ioribaiwa Ridge.
MacArthur committed the relatively green 32nd Division’s 126th and 128th Regiments to Port Moresby without any serious training in jungle warfare. Also, the 32nd Division, being a National Guard unit that was deployed early to Australia, missed the training that other Army ground forces divisions were acquiring stateside.

The two regiments reached Port Moresby by September 28, the day General Horii’s troops evacuated their positions on Ioribaiwa Ridge. However, due to shipping and air transport deficiencies, Harding’s four battalions of division artillery—48 field guns, including the excellent bunker-busting 105mm howitzers—were left in Australia.  These two regiments were ordered to capture the extensive group of Japanese fortified installations at Buna. Eichelberger, however, was skeptical of the untried 32nd’s combat capabilities.

Because of the extensive coastline of northern Papua near Buna, troops of the 32nd Division sailed from Port Moresby  on a motley collection of coastal craft and wooden schooners. These inadequate vessels were vulnerable to Japanese air attack and could not carry artillery, tanks, or heavy equipment. It was no wonder that the U.S. Navy officers did not want to risk their larger craft in uncharted waters against an enemy who controlled the airfields. Additionally, the Allied navies were busy combating Japanese surface ships in the waters off Guadalcanal.

Once committed to the defensive at Buna, the Japanese infantrymen and SNLF troops sought locations of concealment (i.e., trenches, rifle pits, coconut tree tops, pillboxes, camouflaged entrenchments, even entangled tree roots). If the Japanese concealment methods were successful, the American and Australian assault troops would never see the defenders and come under withering fire.
Since air strikes were limited by the density of the jungle canopy, the Allied attackers had to learn, often on the spot, to identify likely concealed defensive positions and probe them. Once identified, the Allies would blast them with bazookas, flamethrowers, tanks, and artillery.

Direct, large-scale infantry assaults gave way to smaller infantry units going forward with covering fire from a cooperating machine-gun or rifle unit. In this manner, alternating advance and covering fire, units would continue to move forward against the enemy positions.

An Australian after-action report recalled just how well the Japanese engineers had prepared the defenses along the 11-mile front of northern Papuan coastline that extended from Gona in the west to Cape Endaiadere to the east of Buna Mission and Giropa Point. Hundreds of coconut log bunkers, some reinforced with iron plates, others with iron rails and oil drums filled with sand, were constructed. In areas that were too wet for trenches and dugouts, bunkers were built above the surface and then concealed with earth, tree fronds, and other vegetation, making them essentially invisible.

The bunkers, which could contain from three to five machine guns, provided an intense interlocking field of fire on any advancing Allied troops. The bunkers were protected by infantry in open rifle pits located to the front, sides, and rear of the fortified entrenchments. Some infantry would be concealed in foxholes, under trees, or even in hollowed-out logs, while others simply waited in the jungle where they were heavily camouflaged. Snipers in the tall coconut trees or in concealed terrain positions were a major menace in both the American and Australian zones along the Buna front.

Another Japanese defensive line, to deter the 7th Australian Division’s advance, was built across the road leading from Soputa, just over seven miles inland, to Sanananda Point on the sea. The Girua River served as an inter-Allied boundary, with the Australians to the west of it, slogging through jungle trails to assault Gona and Sanananda Point.

The Girua River is about 50 feet wide until it disappears in the swamps southeast of Buna Village. The river eventually reaches the ocean through several mouths between Buna and Sanananda Point.

Two other waterways were important in regard to the combat. The first was Entrance Creek, which opened into a shallow lagoon between Buna Village and Buna Mission. The other, Simemi Creek, runs north to the area between Buna’s Old and New Strips, and then parallels the northern side of the Old Strip to the sea between Giropa and Strip Points.

The area between Entrance Creek to the west and Simemi Creek to the east comprises the principal swamp on the Buna front and reaches inland to the vicinity of the villages of Simemi and Ango, which were in the center of the 32nd Division’s area of operations against Buna. This swamp is absolutely impenetrable with closely spaced trees up to 100 feet tall. The swamp’s floor, composed of tangled roots and underbrush, is always waterlogged.

Two large coconut plantations were present. The first, Government Plantation, was about 300 yards wide and situated between the mouth of Simemi Creek and Buna Mission. Duropa Plantation was much larger and ran south from Cape Endaiadere in the east toward Strip Point to the west.

To the southwest of Duropa Plantation was a large area overgrown with kunai grass, upon which was situated the Old Strip, a goal of the Allied advance. Allied control of the airfield would deny the Japanese another chance to seize Port Moresby by land and become a base for the Fifth U.S. Air Force. The Japanese had built a “dummy” field  called “New Strip,” which was in another grassy area to the east of Simemi Creek and ran in an east-west direction.

As the crisis on the Kokoda Trail passed after the Australians reoccupied Kokoda Village without any opposition on November 2, MacArthur had to protect his newly acquired airfield at Kokoda and another at Dobodura, about three miles south of Ango. Japanese possession of Buna could ultimately threaten both airfields, so MacArthur was set on a campaign of annihilation against the Japanese on Papua’s northern coast rather than the less costly strategy of starving them into capitulation.

The Japanese, on the other hand, insisted that Buna be held at all costs and that the Dobodura airfield, 10 miles south of Buna, be destroyed. The loss of Dobodura would hamper Allied reinforcements of Papua and weaken their capacity for air attacks. Tokyo reasoned that losing Buna would jeopardize future operations on New Guinea and the Japanese position on Rabaul. To that end, the Japanese were resolved to defend the Buna front to the last man.

The plan envisioned by MacArthur was for a general advance by the Australian 7th Division to commence on November 16, 1942, driving the Japanese back along the Kokoda Trail while the U.S. 32nd Division would make a secret, wide, enveloping eastward march and then attack westward along Papua’s northern coast against the Buna front. The dividing line between the Australian and U.S. troops was to be the Girua River.

However, the Japanese troops situated there were well protected against any attack from inland. Swamps and dense jungle channeled the Allied attackers down a handful of trails, where a Japanese machine gun in a reinforced pillbox could hold off a battalion. The Australians, with the Americans advancing along the northern New Guinea coast, would expend much blood attempting to wrest control of Buna from the Japanese.

During the remainder of October and the early part of November 1942, the 32nd’s 126th and 128th Regiments continued to move into position while the 127th Regiment remained in Port Moresby. The 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment, serving as the force’s left flank, marched to Buna overland via the Kapa Kapa Trail, a rugged track climbing more than 8,000 feet over the Owen Stanley Range; this unit sustained casualties from noncombat causes and disease.

After five grueling weeks, the battalion reached Soputa on November 20. The exhausted Americans referred to being on this trail as being “in green hell.” To maximize time and effort and avoid an enervating march through the Papuan jungle, the three battalions of the 128th Regiment were airlifted by Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force transport planes to an improved airstrip at Wanigela Mission on Collinwood Bay, roughly 65 miles from Buna. Motor barges then ferried the 128th along the Papuan coast to Pongani, just over 20 miles from Buna.

There the troops constructed a landing field, which enabled the other two battalions of the 126th Regiment to be airlifted to this new site on November 9-11. All told, approximately 15,000 infantrymen and supporting troops were ferried to the Buna area by C-47s.

Kenney turned the Fifth Air Force into a multidimensional unit that included troop transport and supply and aerial artillery for troops who lacked field artillery. With innovations perfected by his B-25 Mitchell and A-20 Havoc medium bombers, the daytime interdiction of Japanese coastal shipping and reinforcements to their New Guinea garrisons was stepped up. In 1942, these were revolutionary tactics, and Papuan laborers and Army engineers began building airfields in northern Papua, notably at Dobodura, located south of Buna and east of the unfordable Girua River, to give Kenney’s planes a base closer to the combat zone to accomplish their various missions.

In mid-November 1942, Lt. Gen. Hatazo Adachi was given command of the newly-formed IJA Eighteenth Army for operations in New Guinea and headquarters at Rabaul. Adachi was to operate under Lt. Gen. Hitoshi Imamura, commander of the Eighth Area Army. Imamura was directly tasked by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo to first recapture Guadalcanal and to hold and consolidate at Buna. In the future another land assault would be planned against Port Moresby. Imamura’s Area Army comprised Adachi’s Eighteenth Army and the Seventeenth Army, under Hyakutake, the latter committed solely to the campaign on Guadalcanal.

Despite intensive Allied bomber interdiction of Japanese reinforcements and mountain guns from Rabaul, Adachi amassed 2,000 to 2,500 troops for the defense of the Buna area, including about 1,800 of whom had not participated in the overland attack on Port Moresby.

Buna’s Japanese defenders were comprised of IJA formations, SNLF units, engineers, gunners, and service troops. Some had just landed, while about 100 infantrymen of the 144th Regiment had survived the retreat up the Kokoda Trail, which claimed the life of General Horii, who drowned in the fast-flowing Kumusi River trying to escape to Lae.

By November 18, the American 128th Regiment’s 1st Battalion was between Hariko and the Duropa Plantation on the northern coast’s track; the 126th’s 1st Battalion was utilizing the same rudimentary trail coming up from Oro Bay. The remainder of this regiment was in position near Inonda.

The 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment, was near Simemi, while at the grassy open plain at Dobodura elements of the 128th’s 2nd Battalion assisted with airfield construction. Food and ammunition would have to be airlifted to this new field since Japanese air interdiction, much like the Allies’, had strangled coastal supply by motor barges and schooners. The remainder of the 2nd Battalion established a division reserve at Ango.

Without a harbor and with swamps and creeks protecting it on the inland side, Buna would have to be approached along four jungle trails, each approximately 12 feet wide, but always prone to becoming washed out by tropical downpours. To that end the American engineers of the 114th Regiment were constantly laying down coconut log-surfaced corduroy roads to enable jeeps to bring up supplies and evacuate casualties.

The American approach to Buna was confined to two routes––one between Simemi Creek and the east coast and the other on the west side of the swamp along the Ango trail toward Buna Mission and Buna Village. The two routes lacked lateral communication, requiring two days to march from one flank to the other. More importantly, the Americans had little intelligence on the enemy opposition and location of defensive fortifications they would soon face.

Adachi’s Buna front, starting in the west at the Girua River near Buna Village and extending to Cape Endaiadere in the east, was just over three miles long and less than a mile from the coast. The Japanese had a motor road from Buna Mission to the bridge at Simemi Creek, which enabled lateral communication and reinforcement.

Specifically, the entrenched defensive works at Buna Mission ran slightly southwest to Entrance Creek and then turned north to enclose an area called “The Triangle.” The line of Japanese pillboxes and rifle pits then moved eastward across a grass-covered area called Government Gardens and then ran toward the coast through Government Plantation, ending at Giropa Point.

The defense of Buna Village and Buna Mission, the western sector, was in the hands of Captain Yoshitatsu Yasuda and his Yokosuka 5th SNLF and the 5th Sasebo SNLF, veterans of China and Malaya. Yasuda had installed heavy barbed-wire entanglements along this area to thwart an advance from the south. The SNLF units were deployed in a honeycomb of bunkers on the main approach between the swamps and in the coconut grove and gardens behind.

Other combat troops at Buna were the survivors of Tsukioka Unit’s three-month ordeal on Goodenough Island after their landing barges for the Milne Bay amphibious invasion were interdicted by Allied air patrols along with elements of Horii’s retreating South Seas Force.

About 500 yards southeast of Giropa Point, more entrenched positions were situated along the western end of the Old Strip, which had been built by Australian forces before the July 1942 Japanese invasion. It had been used by Japanese naval aircraft in August  but had been heavily bombed and put out of action with several disabled Zero fighters and transports left abandoned on the runway.

Enemy positions continued eastward between the “Old” and “New” airstrips and ran onto a wooden causeway more than 40 yards long spanning the Simemi Creek then skirted the northern edge of the New Strip through the Duropa Plantation to abut the ocean half a mile south of Cape Endaiadere.

This eastern Japanese flank, under the command of Colonel Shigemi Yamamoto, was defended by the 3rd Battalion, 229th Infantry Regiment, which had captured Canton and Hong Kong and, until mid-November, had been at Gona.

Miscellaneous units included a heavy antiaircraft battery of the 73rd Independent Unit, a mountain artillery battery of the 3rd Battalion, 55th Field Artillery Unit, and 700 replacements for the 144th Infantry Regiment. During the initial two weeks of the Allied thrust on Buna, the American troops would face mostly fresh, fit, well-equipped Japanese troops.

Advancing American infantry first had to learn how to locate the camouflaged enemy bunkers, with forward units often being mown down by Japanese machine-gun  fire, and then making costly frontal or flank attacks, the latter by crawling through swampy terrain. The source of the gunfire couldn’t be identified because Japanese machine guns and Arisaka rifles used flashless gunpowder. Sometimes  advancing American infantrymen were allowed to pass the well-concealed Japanese positions before the defenders opened fire on the rear echelon of the patrol from all sides, inflicting heavy casualties.

On November 19, 1942, the Buna operation started with the 128th Regiment’s 1st and 3rd Battalions marching toward the Japanese positions running from Simemi Creek along the New Strip to the ocean. With the 3rd Battalion to the southwest of the “dummy” airfield at New Strip and the 1st Battalion on the coastal trail moving toward the Duropa Plantation, they met with unseen Japanese machine-gun and rifle fire. The 128th Regiment’s two-battalion march was stopped abruptly as the Japanese, possessing lateral lines of communication, quickly reinforced their positions.

Two days later, a frustrated MacArthur issued a directive to General Harding for the storming of Buna’s defensive works: “All columns will be driven through to objectives regardless of losses…. Take Buna today at all costs. MacArthur.”

Harding ordered a frontal assault that day along the Japanese easternmost positions after a preliminary bombing raid and mortar attack, since there was no American artillery present. Again, well-aimed Japanese machine-gun and mortar fire and snipers curtailed the American attack.
In addition, the Japanese would retreat during aerial bombardment to reinforced shelters and then sneak back to their pillboxes after the air raids to be ready at their machine guns once the Americans advanced.

Also on November 21, the 2nd Battalion, 128th Regiment, which had made the grueling Kapa Kapa Trail march, was stopped by the enemy at The Triangle south of Government Gardens in the western sector. The terrain there was mostly knee-deep swamp water that ruined radios, soaked mortar propellant, jammed machine guns and rifles with muck, and disoriented the GIs, especially in the darkness.

Entrance Creek, west of The Triangle, was unfordable for a flanking maneuver, except at sites well covered by Japanese machine guns and barbed wire that prevented the Americans from getting close.
On November 22, the 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment, which had been supporting the Australian 7th Division, was released by the Australians to support the 2nd Battalion, 128th Regiment, struggling in The Triangle and at Entrance Creek.

General Harding formed two large task forces out of his surviving 3,500 combat troops; the 2nd Battalions of both the 126th and 128th Regiments would operate to the west of the large swamp area and were designated Urbana Force. The smaller of the two forces, under the command of Colonel John Mott, was tasked with assaulting Buna Village and then advancing onto Buna Mission.

East of the swamp, the larger force, dubbed Warren Force, was comprised of the 1st Battalion, 126th Regiment, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 128th Infantry Regiment, along with some Australian elements, all under Brig. Gen. Hanford MacNider. Warren Force was ordered to attack the Eastern Sector’s defenses from Giropa Point to Cape Endadaiere. This constituted the last Allied troop movement prior to reinforcements arriving on the Buna front.

On November 24, Urbana Force moved against The Triangle area and, after a day of crawling through the fetid swamp, reached a point beyond Entrance Creek adjacent to the trail to Buna Village to the northwest. The Triangle, a deep enemy salient of interlocking machine guns and mortars, could not be approached from the east, as both swamp and open kunai grass areas impeded advances. Thus, any further movement of Urbana Force would have to be to the northwest of The Triangle in the direction of Buna Village.

On November 26, the fighting shifted to the Warren Force area. Elements of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment and 1st Battalion, 126th Regiment attacked Japanese positions at Duropa Plantation after aerial and artillery bombardment, the latter from one American 105mm howitzer battery, six Australian 25-pounders, and one mountain howitzer just airlifted to the front.

Target identification by Allied fighters and ammunition resupply was problematic, however. The preliminary aerial and gun bombardment had not destroyed the Japanese reinforced bunkers, so the infantry attack sputtered under heavy enemy machine-gun fire and no further attempts to reduce the defensive fortifications were made for 72 hours. A further hindrance to the Warren Force advance was the strafing by Japanese fighters from Lae.

On November 30, a new offensive failed on the Urbana Force front west of Entrance Creek, while a two-battalion assault, without the planned Australian Bren gun carriers, faltered in the Duropa Plantation to the east.

Thus, the Japanese defensive line along the Buna front was un-dented and as strong as it had been almost two weeks earlier, after inflicting about 500 American casualties. Combat and noncombat casualties, from malaria, dysentery, and scrub typhus, reduced the 32nd’s battalions to half strength.
MacArthur’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, visited Harding and recommended a leadership change to MacArthur, who then ordered Eichelberger to embark for Buna on December 1 and take over command of Allied forces east of the Girua River and “remove all officers who won’t fight.… Relieve regimental and battalion commanders … put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies…. I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.”

Although the Japanese had held their positions, they, too, were suffering increasing attrition and waning morale. Enemy diaries found at Buna revealed entries from December 1 that “they had been waiting for reinforcements for the past four days” and that “My body will be buried in New Guinea and become fertilizer for the soil of Buna,” and “Now we are waiting only for death.”

Allied logistical hurdles were being overcome as 105mm howitzers arrived at the Buna front courtesy of Kenney’s B-17s. Australian-crewed Bren carriers and M3 Stuart light tanks reached Eichelberger and were employed on December 5 and 18, respectively. An increased shipment of supplies by both air and sea started to arrive.

Eichelberger reorganized his forces somewhat and installed new local commanders. The 32nd Division’s artillery officer, Maj. Gen. Albert Waldron, replaced Harding. Brig. Gen. Clarence Martin assumed command of Warren Force, while Urbana Force was to be led by Colonel John Grose. Eichelberger’s I Corps headquarters was combined with the 32nd’s to become Buna Force Headquarters, positioned at Simemi Village. Junior officers and enlisted men were learning some jungle craft and acquiring combat experience.

A three-battalion attack began through the Duropa Plantation on December 5, 1942, with supporting Bren gun carriers; however, these were all quickly disabled by Japanese snipers in trees, infantry with explosives, and tree stumps. Other companies attacked the New Strip’s western edge and the bridge crossing Simemi Creek. The Japanese positions could not be reduced, so gains were measured in yards. Warren Force would make repeated attacks on the enemy from December 6-14, but despite MacArthur’s demands  could not break through the Japanese line.

On the Urbana Force front, on December 5, platoon-sized elements of Company G, 126th Regiment succeeded in driving east of the Girua River to the sea and separated Buna Village from Japanese reinforcements at Buna Mission and Government Station. The 126th’s E Company rushed in to help repel Japanese counterattacks along the coast.

The enemy defensive line in the western sector had finally been pierced, albeit with many casualties, including the 32nd’s new commander, Waldron, and an Eichelberger aide, who were wounded at the front.

To prevent the breakthrough near Buna Village from stalling, Eichelberger threw in reinforcements in the form of the 3rd Battalion, 127th Regiment, under Lt. Col. Edwin Swedberg, that was air transported to the Dobodura and Popondetta airields on December 9; they relieved the 2nd Battalion, 126th Regiment, on December 11.

Three days later, after patrolling and becoming familiar with the enemy fortifications, two companies from 3rd Battalion, 127th Regiment captured Buna Village following a heavy mortar bombardment. Among the few Japanese prisoners taken, some claimed that American mortar fire was very effective at wearing them down in their pillboxes and rifle pits since there was no advance warning to allow them to temporarily move to reinforced shelters.

To break the stalemate around Buna on the Warren Front, Eichelberger decided to wait until mid-December for light tanks and fresh Australian troops ordered by General Blamey to be brought up from Milne Bay.

Brigadier George F. Wooten’s remaining 18th Infantry Brigade battalions arrived along with seven light M3 tanks of X Squadron, Australian 2/6 Armored Regiment. This would considerably augment the Allied firepower at Buna since they had only the Australian “short” 25-pounder and a couple of American 105mm howitzers with limited ammunition.

From December 15-18, the three American battalions on the Warren Front moved forward against the Japanese across the entire line. On December 18, elements of the Australian 2/9 Infantry Battalion passed through the American lines with the accompanying tanks and reached Cape Endaiadere before being stopped by a new line of enemy bunkers as they swung west along the north coast.

Two M3 tanks were disabled by a Japanese antiaircraft gun, and a third was set ablaze, but with the 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment, following up on the Australian advance an Allied coastal position just south of Cape Endaiadere was constructed.

Additionally, both Australian and American units, including 1st Battalion, 128th Regiment, were able to oust the Japanese from their fortifications at the eastern spur of the New Strip, forcing the enemy to retreat to prepared bunkers near the Simemi Creek bridge. About one-third of the Australians became casualties, but the reinforced Japanese bunkers at the Duropa Plantation and along northern side of the New Strip had been reduced.

On December 19-20, the Australian 2/9 Battalion and elements of the 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment moved westward through the remainder of the Duropa Plantation on a 1,000-yard front. The 1st Battalions of the 126th and 128th Regiments eliminated all the Japanese bunkers on the east side of Simemi Creek to finally arrive at the bridge; however, the enemy had blown a 12-foot gap in this causeway that would require either repair or a flanking maneuver.

After unsuccessfully attempting to repair the gap, the Australian 2/10 Battalioncrossed the creek north of the bridge on december 21-23, threatening the Japanese defenders there. The 1st Battalion, 126th Regiment was able to get across the bridge by midday on December 23 and reached the southern edge of the Old Strip. The Australian and American battalions would now attempt to move, in parallel, along both the northern and southern sides of the Old Strip. Allied infantry painstakingly advanced about 500 yards, despite intense fire from enemy bunkers on the northern and central portions of the Old Strip.

After dark on December 23, the 114th Engineers repaired the gap in the bridge, enabling Australian M3 light tanks to cross Simemi Creek. An Allied tank assault across the bridge was made on December 24 to get to the northeast side of the Old Strip; however, the tanks were all disabled by the Japanese or the shell-pocked terrain.

An area designated Coconut Grove had fallen to the Americans back on December 16, but The Triangle had not yet been seized. On December 24, the 127th Regiment managed to create a bridgehead on the east bank of Entrance Creek after crossing it to the north above Coconut Grove on a footbridge constructed by U.S. Army engineers. Enemy resistance in The Triangle area would now be simply contained rather than frontally assaulted.

On Christmas Eve Day, the American infantry started a drive toward the northern coast to get between Buna Mission and Giropa Point, which would be achieved on December 29. Allied assaults on Christmas Day yielded few positive results as a strong pocket of Japanese bunkers prohibited the advance of either the American or Australian battalions.

On December 26-27, elements of the 1st Battalion, 126th Regiment were able to slowly advance with the assistance of an Australian 25-pounder artillery piece at the Simemi Creek bridge firing armor-piercing shells at the tenacious Japanese bunkers holding up the advance along the Old Strip.
By nightfall on December 27, the western end of the Old Strip was reached to enable a movement northward to Government Plantation, which geographically began in the east at the mouth of the Simemi Creek and extended to Buna Mission to the northwest.

On the morning of December 28, American patrols found that the Japanese had evacuated The Triangle area. The Americans also discovered the reason for the fierce enemy resistance in The Triangle. It contained over 18 mutually supporting reinforced bunkers that were interconnected by communication trenches.

The next day, four new M3 light tanks led an advance on Government Plantation, but progress was slow and the Allied infantry paused to await reinforcements. An Australian relief battalion, the 2/12 of the 18th Infantry Brigade, arrived on December 31 with more tanks.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Arnold, the 2/12 Battalion commander, led an attack that broke through to the northern coast at Giropa Point on New Years Day 1943. Elements of this force moved against the main enemy fortifications at Government Plantation to the southeast while other units of the 2/12 Battalion moved west to contact Urbana Force.

On January 2, the 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment moved northwestward between the Old Strip and the coast to assist in eliminating the last of the Japanese pockets of resistance. Both Captain Yasuda and Colonel Yamamoto reportedly “died facing the Australian tanks approaching their command bunker.”
Progress on the Urbana front moved slowly since the capture of Buna Village two weeks earlier by the 3rd Battalion, 127th Regiment, largely because of the absence of Australian tank support—tank support that the Warren Force had benefited from.

After three months of frontal assaults, since the Papuan terrain prevented envelopments with large forces, the Japanese base at Buna was in Allied hands on January 2, 1943.

At Buna alone, of the original 2,000 Japanese defenders, 1,450 were known captured or dead with many more dying in the jungle or at sea. On the Allied side at Buna, the Urbana and Warren Forces had lost 620 men killed: 353 Americans and 267 Australians. Additionally, there were 2,065 wounded and 132 missing.

Malaria inflicted tens of thousands of medical casualties, largely because of the shortage of quinine. As for unit integrity, the 32nd Infantry Division was severely mauled at Buna and would up to a year of refitting in Australia to prepare for the next series of battles.

Eichelberger returned to Australia as I Corps commander to retrain and refit the two American divisions for future operations in New Guinea.

The U.S. Army’s commanders in the Southwest Pacific learned much from the Papuan campaign of 1942-1943, but the price was high. It was clear that U.S. Army units required more training. In contrast, the Australians had previously served in the Middle East.

After the victory in Papua in January 1943, MacArthur decreed that there would be “no more Bunas!” According to the official Australian history, “The primaeval swamps, the dank and silent bush, the heavy loss of life, the fixity of purpose of the Japanese, for most of whom death could be the only ending, all combined to make the struggle so appalling that most of the hardened soldiers who were to emerge from it would remember it unwillingly as their most exacting experience of the whole war … a ghastly nightmare.”

Suggested Reading: 

Kokoda By Peter FitzSimmons 

Those Ragged Bloody Heroes: From the Kokoda Trail to Gona Beach 1942 By Peter Brune 

The Path of Infinite Sorrow By Craig Collie