Grinding out a victory: Australian and American commanders during the beachhead battles

Peter Dean

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    This chapter is about the four senior commanders who served on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range between November 1942 and January 1943. The setting is one of the most inhospitable places in which to fight a war, and these battles came at a time when the Allies were still recovering from the strategic shock of the Japanese advances of late 1941 and early 1942. It was a campaign fought while the Allies were only just beginning to fully exploit their strategic and operational advantages, and in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) it was also a period of tense Allied relations, when the cut and thrust of coalition politics between the United States and Australian high commands was being played out under the influence of the relative strategic weight and battlefield performance of each nation. It is the story of two corps commanders and two division commanders; of two Australians -; Lieutenant General Edmund ‘Ned’ Herring, General Officer Commanding Advanced New Guinea Force (GOC Adv NGF), a corps-level command; and Major General George Vasey, GOC 7th Australian Division -; and two Americans: Lieutenant General Robert ‘Bob’ Eichelberger, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief the US I Corps, and Major General Edwin ‘Forrest’ Harding, General Officer Commanding the US 32nd Infantry Division. Ultimately, it is a story of mediocrity, failure and a small measure of excellence. In order to understand how these commanders performed in battle, it is essential to understand the broader context of the campaign. For the Allies the setting was strategically defensive and operationally offensive. As David Horner has noted of the Papuan campaign in 1942, ‘contrary to later claims by General MacArthur’, the Kokoda and the beachhead battles of Buna, Gona and Sanananda were ‘fought in reaction to a Japanese offensive. It owes nothing to strategic foresight among the high command in Australia.’ Specifically, the beachhead battles were MacArthur’s drive to clean up the remnant of the Japanese forces that landed on the northern shore of Papua in July 1942 and marched overland to assault Port Moresby. Significantly, while the Japanese drive over the Kokoda Trail had been defeated in the Owen Stanley Range, a large portion of their troops remained entrenched at their base camps around Gona, Sanananda and Buna on Papua’s northern shore. As a result, these battles would be considerably larger than those fought on the Kokoda Trail.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationKokoda: Beyond the Legend
    Editors Karl James
    Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    ISBN (Print)9781107189713
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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