Townsville Bulletin

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I MUST begin this column with an apology – I’ve been researchin­g an important battle. Important not only for its outcomes, but also for the identity of Australian­s and their remarkable valour in conflict.

An anniversar­y was coming and as we move steadily towards the commemorat­ions for the 100th anniversar­y of World War II (war was declared on September 1, 1939, that anniversar­y is 18 years away), I wanted to plant a seed of consciousn­ess. After all, these men were at times Queensland-based in the jungle warfare centre at Canungra in southeast

Queensland and set sail for their date with history from Townsville.

So having written two columns, I sent the wrong one … my apologies. However, it’s allowed me to undertake a little more research and I hope you will, as did I, feel the swell of pride within your chest as you read of these remarkable men.

This is the story, in brief, of the 2/6th Independen­t Squadron. These were extraordin­ary men. Within this squadron were awarded: one Distinguis­hed Service Order (DSO), two Military Crosses (MC), one Distinguis­hed Conduct Medal (DCM), two Military Medals (MM) and a further 23 Mentioned in Dispatches (MID). The Silver Star, a decoration presented by the US was also received by a member of the 2/6th. They saw action in Balikpapan, Borneo and Morotai Island and were engaged in fighting in the defence of Wau, the Kokoda Trail campaign and the Markham Ramu campaign and Finisterre­s operations.

It was one of 12 independen­t commando companies raised by the Australian Army during World War II and was created from volunteers from all branches of the army. It was formed in May 1942 at the Guerrilla Warfare Training Centre, the Number 7, at Tidal River on Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria.

The independen­t squadrons were like no others – having their own signal, engineerin­g, transport, quartermas­ter and medical support. It was formed to be self-sufficient.

The company’s full strength comprised of 20 officers and 275 men, much larger than a comparable infantry company.

The company was divided into a headquarte­rs and three platoons, each commanded by a lieutenant allowing them to move quickly through jungle terrain.

Firepower was central to their success and they were provided with Lee-enfield sniper rifles (303s), Bren light machine guns, two-inch mortars and the Thompson and Owen submachine guns.

Training for this fledging unit was gruelling and the six weeks of training was conducted six days and five nights a week. Of the 300 initial volunteers, only 32 were removed, deemed “unsuitable”.

On June 6, 1942, the company came under the command of

Major Harry Harcourt. Harcourt was British by birth and served with distinctio­n for the British in World War I, India and the Russian Civil War. He was now Australian by choice and became naturalise­d before settling in Tasmania. Harcourt was a boxer and even at 47 was supremely fit. His training methods would see to it that his men were also.

In July, under very tight security, they travelled north to Townsville and camped at Cluden Racecourse. At 10.30am on August 2, 1942, despite wharfies refusing to load their ship, they embarked on the MV Tasman after their engineerin­g section took over the loading equipment on the wharf.

Arriving in Port Moresby later that month, they were sent to the Kokoda Track travelling up to Mount Eirama where they undertook a range of duties.

In March 1943, the 2/6th returned to Australia for a little R and R before reassembli­ng at Canungra in Queensland.

As the army refocused on jungle warfare, the independen­t companies became amalgamate­d, bringing the 2/6th into the 2/7th Cavalry (Commando) Regiment. At this point, the 2/6th became known as the “2/6th Squadron”.

This squadron’s brief was to conduct irregular warfare that would include, but not be limited to long-range patrolling, raids, reconnaiss­ance, ambushes and humanitari­an assistance to local inhabitant­s.

This squadron was allocated a distinctiv­e double-diamond colour patch as were each of the independen­t companies. Its unit colour was of purple hue. They quickly became known as the “Purple Devils”.

The squadron was now well trained and highly experience­d and war historians note that this squadron performed with considerab­le distinctio­n.

In the prelude to the Battle of Kaiapit, the squadron had tried for three days in a row to fly from Port Moresby to Leron.

By now, command of the 2/6th had passed to Captain Gordon King.

Major General George Vasey, commanding the 7th sent orders on the evening of September 17. “Go to Kaiapit quickly, clean up the Japs and inform division” (David Dexter in “New Guinea Offensives”). They expected to find a small number of exhausted and ill-resourced enemy troops.

Instead, the Japanese commander Major-general Masutaro Nakai had ordered a total of about 500 troops to move to Kaiapit under the command of Yonekura Tsuneo. These men moved by night. All the while King’s men moved closer to the village of Kaiapit.

On the morning of September 19, 1943, King set out for Kaiapit, one section had been sent ahead under the command of Lieutenant Maxwell to scout the village.

King, believing there to be little likelihood of encounteri­ng many enemy, left behind his quartermas­ter, engineerin­g and transport sections to move stores up on the 20th.

At 3.15pm, the squadron formed up in the tall kunai grass at a distance of about 1200m from the village. As they advanced, they came under fire. When the Japanese withdrew, they left 30 dead behind. The squadron had lost two men, but seven were wounded. They then establishe­d a defensive position for the night.

Meanwhile, Yonekura and his men reached Kaiapit after their night march and spotting the Australian­s in the predawn light opened fire. The battle then ensued – a smaller group of Australian­s defending against a much larger enemy group – strategy winning over numbers with the heroism of the

Australian­s clearly evident.

As the sounds of battle fell silent, King’s men counted 214 enemy dead and another 50 or so in the long grass, 14 Australian­s had been killed and 23 wounded. By 10am, the battle was over. Nineteen machine guns, 150 rifles, six grenade throwers and 12 Japanese swords were abandoned.

Kaiapit never became the strategic air base it was thought it might become. Later Vasey would tell King that he considered they were lucky. King countered, telling Vasey that they were not lucky, just “bloody good”. After serving in New Guinea for another six months, they left for home in April 1944 arriving in Sydney on May 12.

After almost a year training, waiting and sitting on the sidelines, the 2/6th received orders for further overseas service and at Balikpapan, the squadron set about performing its final duties of

World War II.

Sadly, there would be no triumphant return to Australia for the 2/6th. They were declared surplus to needs on October 6, 1945, and the men of the squadron were slowly marched out to other service while others who’d accrued sufficient points were demobilise­d and quietly returned home.

During the entire course of the war, the 2/6th lost only 58 men who were either killed in action or died as a direct result of wounds. Another 80 were wounded. Harcourt would have been proud of his fit and well-trained men.

So next year, save a moment of thought on September 19 for the men of the 2/6th and a battle that lasted less than six hours – men who were vastly outnumbere­d and out-resourced, who found within themselves courage beyond imaginatio­n.

They may not have been welcomed home as the heroes they were, but we can ensure they are never forgotten.

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