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1942 was the most terrifying year in our history. It was the one and only time that our country was under serious threat of invasion. We have never been, before or since, poised on such a knife edge as we were when Singapore fell and Darwin was bombed. Not just Darwin. It got the publicity. What about Broome, Wyndham, Townsville, Newcastle and Sydney? Prominent figures like PM Curtin, Gen Macarthur and high profile others got the plaudits but none of them saved us from a Japanese invasion. There are three men who did.

They are the unsung heroes who actually did save us from a fate worse than death and they did it in spite of the handicaps heaped upon them by Macarthur and Blamey. They all fell victim to the little man syndrome that afflicted Blamey and the ego of Macarthur that needed constant feeding.

 Their names were Major General Cyril Clowes, Lt/Colonel Ralph Honner and Brigadier Arnold Potts.

First and foremost is Maj Gen. Cyril Clowes, otherwise known as “Silent Cyril”.

He was the commander of the Milne Bay operation and was the first to inflict a defeat on the Japanese on land. To him must go the credit for a campaign that has been overshadowed by Kokoda but was probably more critical from a strategic point of view. Had Milne Bay fallen there would have been no success at Kokoda and probably no Guadalcanal either.

 

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Major-General Cyril Clowes (inset) and a Japanese invasion barge landing at Milne Bay in New Guinea shortly after the unsuccessful Japanese attack during World War II. 

Clowes was a permanent soldier of the AIF and a graduate of Duntroon. He landed at Gallipoli on 25th April as an artillery officer. On the Western front he was awarded the Greek Military Cross and later a DSO for his work at Villers Bretonneux. Between the wars he served as chief instructor at the School of Artillery. At the outbreak of WW2 he was appointed to command the 6th Military District followed by appointment to command the Royal Australian Artillery. He served in the Greek campaign and was credited with tactics that resulted in a minimal of casualties but he became involved in disputes with Blamey, his superior officer, on tactics. These wounds would never heal.

In January, 1942 he returned to Australia as a temporary Major General commanding the 1st Division. In May, 1942, Macarthur ordered the construction of an airfield at Milne Bay. Clowes promotion was confirmed and he was appointed commander of Milne Force. This consisted of a mix of militia and regular troops,an American airfield construction squadron and two RAAF squadrons.. He arrived at Milne Bay four days before the Japanese made a landing to the east of where the airfields were being built.

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A Kittyhawk taxies over 'Marston Mat' pierced-steel planking laid on the mud at Milne Bay.  

Milne Bay is at the very eastern extremity of Papua jutting into the string of islands that becomes the Solomons. It is mountainous and extremely wet.It was a perfect breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. Both sides saw its strategic value and the allies decided to construct three airstrips there from which to harass and resist the Japanese operating from their main Pacific base at Rabaul. The Japanese landed with tanks and inflicted severe casualties on the defending Australians. The Australians were greatly assisted by fact that one airstrip was completed and operational so that RAAF 75th and 76th squadrons equipped with P40 Kittyhawks were able to give vital support.

The Japanese landed with a crack marine division and with the aid of their tanks got within reach of the airstrip to the point where the Kittyhawks were withdrawn to the safety of Port Moresby each night and returned each morning to attack the Japanese.

The Japanese invasion force suffered from lack of supply and reinforcements caused by the resistance of the Australian ground forces, the attacking by the RAAF and the need to provide their forces heavily engaged at Guadalcanal and the Kokoda Track. On 6th September the Japanese command ordered a withdrawal. 600 were evacuated that night and the rest abandoned to their fate.

The key to the allied victory was the secret establishment of the garrison and the construction of the airfields. When the Japanese landed they did not know, let alone expect, that the Australians were already there. The ability of the Australians to keep this secret speaks wonders for the tight security surrounding it.

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In the aftermath of the battle Clowes was grudgingly acknowledged by Blamey but criticised him for infrequent battlefield reports and disputing his tactics. Macarthur likewise was always dismissive of the Australian contribution and reported to General Marshall that the Australians lacked aggressiveness. Clowes’ brilliant success in the face of almost insurmountable odds was never acknowledged. He was invalided out of New Guinea with malaria and never again given a battlefield posting, another victim of Blamey’s little man syndrome, a disease that he was never able to overcome.

Lt. Colonel Ralph Honner

Ralph Honner was the commander of the 39th Battalion in the critical days of the Kokoda campaign. The exploits of the 39th Battalion were covered in my contribution “Those Ragged Bloody Heroes” published in April so I won’t devote space to going over old ground.

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Ralph Honner was a citizen soldier. He joined the militia in 1936 and enlisted with the AIF in October 1939. He served as commander of C Company of the 2/11 Battalion in North Africa, Greece and Crete.

The 39th Battalion was the first unit to be sent along the Kokoda Track to defend the airfield at Kokoda from Japanese invasion. It suffered the loss of two commanding officers and staged a fighting withdrawal to the village of Isurava in the desperate days when the 7th Division was withdrawn back to Australia to fight the Japanese.

Ralph Honner had much experience fighting withdrawal actions on Greece and Crete. He returned to Australia along with the general repatriation of the 7th Division and was promoted to Lt. Colonel in command of the 39th Battalion. He arrived at Isurava on 16th August to find his battalion in a very bad state of exhaustion, depleted from tropical diseases and engagements, and lacking reinforcements. His plan was to undertake a fighting withdrawal to hold the Japanese until the main body of the 7th Division arrived. In this he was very successful pending the arrival of the 2/14th Battalion. Even then Honner had raised the morale of the 39th to the point where instead of retiring they continued to fight alongside the 2/14th.

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When the Kokoda campaign was nearing its end the 39th were withdrawn and rested but they returned to action in the Buna and Gona campaign during which Honner was awarded his DSO. In January, 1943 the 39th was withdrawn to Australia and disbanded. Honner was then appointed to command the 2/14th Battalion which he led in the Ramu and Markham Valley campaigns. He received a serious wound to his hip and was medically evacuated back to Australia, classified as fit only for administrative duties and in January, 1945 was medically discharged from the Army.

Honner’s leadership of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track was critical in holding back the Japanese until the arrival of the 7th Division. Had he failed, the Japanese would have reached Port Moresby.

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Although he was in command when Blamey castigatedly abused the 39th at Koitaki Plantation with his morale destroying speech he did not become a victim of Blamey’s little man syndrome probably because he was too low in rank to become a rival.

After the war Honner became Chairman of the War Pensions Tribunal until 1968 when he became Australia’s ambassador to Ireland. He died on 14th May, 1994.At his funeral an unidentified Japanese veteran approached the coffin and bowed in deep respect. He is buried at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Cemetery.

Brigadier Arnold Potts

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Arnold Potts was the commander of the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division that came to the relief of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track and fought the Japanese to a standstill with a fighting withdrawal that ended on the heights overlooking Port Moresby. He is still regarded today in many quarters as “the man who saved Australia”. He has been described by one leading authority as being the most underappreciated officer ever to have served in the defence of our country.

Arnold Potts was born on the Isle of Man on 16th September 1896. On 29th September, 1904, the family boarded the White Star liner RUNIC bound for the Swan River Colony. His military career began as a colour-sergeant in the Cadet Corps at Guildford Grammar School. In July, 1914 he left Guildford and enrolled at the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra. There he transferred to the 86th Infantry Regiment (CMF) and after 4 months transferred to the 4th Reinforcements of the 16th Battalion, first AIF with the rank of Acting Sergeant. Potts was short in stature, 5’7” and only just turned 18 but his leadership qualities stood out. He was also the best shot in the battalion. His reinforcement group joined the battalion in July, 1915. Potts was a private but in October he was reinstated to full sergeant.

Arnold Potts on the far left

The 16th Battalion performed brilliantly at Suvla but had many casualties. By the time it was evacuated back to Egypt its strength was down to 200 men. The battalion was reorganised as part of the newly formed 4th Division and Potts was promoted to Lieutenant. The division moved to France, headquartered at Albert, Potts was promoted to Captain and in October was heavily engaged in the assault of Mouquet Farm where he won the Military Cross for gallantry when in command of a French trench mortar battery. In July, 1918 he was hit in the chest by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of Hamel and moved to Wandsworth Hospital in London.

He was repatriated back to Australia arriving at Albany on 15th January, 1919. His recuperation was slow. He was discharged from the army in March, classified as 20% disabled on a pension of 25/- per fortnight and went to live with his parents at Kalgoorlie, unable to work.

He received an offer to become a jackaroo at Bullaloo Station near Onslow. Despite his poor health he accepted reasoning that it would give him experience at farming and, as a veteran, was eligible for a Soldier Settlers Loan. After a few months his health steadily improved and he bought a property at Kojonup which he developed through sheer determination, into a viable sheep farm where had married and raised a family until duty called again.

In April, 1940 the Commonwealth decided to raise the 7th Division for overseas service. Potts sought enlistment and passed his medical by the skin of his teeth. He was 44 years old but as a well known identity was promoted to major and used as a recruitment officer. As the war progressed he was made 2 I/C of the 2/16 Battalion and moved with the division to Palestine as part of the 21st Brigade. The brigade was engaged right through the Syrian campaign against the Vichy French during which Potts was awarded a DSO.

 

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Following the end of the Syrian campaign the C/O of the 2/16 Battalion was transferred and Potts, promoted to Lt. Colonel, took over. With Japan’s entry into the war Things took a dramatic turn. The 7th Division was to be brought back to Australia and placed under the command of Gen. Douglas Macarthur with Gen. Thomas Blamey as CIC of the Australian Army. The 21st Brigade was moved to Glen Innes for training prior to its despatch to New Guinea. The commander of 21st Brigade was promoted to Major General and moved to the 4th Division. Potts was promoted to temporary brigade commander. After the Coral Sea battle the brigade was moved again to Queensland for jungle training. Potts’ appointments were confirmed.

Until allied code breakers discovered a Japanese plan to attack Port Moresby overland from the north the 7th Division was retained in southern Queensland as part of the Brisbane Line. In April the Australian Army brigadiers were asked to rate the efficiency of each brigade. 21st Brigade was one of the very few rated “A”. The 30th Brigade which was already in Port Moresby was rated “F”. The 2ast Brigade was comprised of 2/14,2/15 & 2/16 battalions which were all battle hardened from their involvement in the Syrian campaign and Potts’ fierce training programme once they returned to Australia. On 6th& 8th August, 1942 the crack 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions embarked for Port Moresby under tight security. Potts flew from Brisbane to Port Moresby by Sunderland Flying boat from Brisbane to meet with General Morris, commander of New Guinea Force. Potts orders were simple and clear; Retake Kokoda and its airfield and establish it as a base for future operations against the Japanese.

 

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When Potts arrived in New Guinea he discarded the chosen sites for his battalions and created his own on higher ground above the mosquito infested malarial flats. 30th Brigade had no intelligence on the Kokoda Track so Potts undertook it himself. There were no maps or other information on the Kokoda Track. It had been regarded by higher command and 30th Brigade as being “impassable”.

Macarthur had no idea about the terrain or anything else in New Guinea yet he sat in his Brisbane HQ directing those commanders on the spot.

Potts developed his own plan which was centred on 2/14 and 2/16 battalions joining up with the 39th. As the first elements of the 2/14 were about to set off a signal arrived to say that 4,000 Japanese troops had landed at Buna and Gona. Led by Potts, the 2/14 set off up the track dressed and equipped with their original desert outfits which stood out like beacons among the dark green jungle. Each man, including Potts, carried 6 day’s rations and ammunition. The next day the 2/16 followed.

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Some members of D Company, 39th Battalion, returning to their base camp

Potts’ supply position was to be provided by air drops. On 16th August Gen. Rowell passed the aerodrome at   Port Moresby and noticed the transports all lined up wing tip to wing tip. He asked the American commander to disperse the planes for safety from Japanese bombing raids. It wasn’t done and the next morning a flight of Japanese bombers destroyed them all. Potts’ supply position was now in chaos and units of the 30th Brigade already on the track had not been informed of the arrival of the 21st Brigade. On23rd August Rowell instructed Potts to take over command of Maroubra Force. This put him in command of all units operating on the Kokoda Track. The sole source of supply now rested with native carriers, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.

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When the 2/14 made contact with 30th Brigade, its CO, Lt. Col. Ralph Honner sent all their wounded back to Port Moresby. The position was so desperate that 26 of these wounded turned around and reported back for duty.

Potts’ tactics were to undertake a fighting withdrawal. The 2/27 Battalion was held in reserve at Port Moresby. Potts requested it be released but was denied because the Milne Bay battle was still going on and the 2/27may have been needed there.

Macarthur despatched Blamey to Port Moresby with disastrous results.

Blamey threw his weight around and achieved nothing but distraction and confusion. Finally, the 2/27 was released to Potts and the pressure was relieved. In due course the Japanese advanced to a point where Port Moresby came into view in the distance but it also brought them within the range of the Australian 25 pounders (artillery). Suddenly the Japanese retreated without warning and a chase began back to the coast at Buna & Gona.

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abandoned tanks following the withdrawal by Japan

Potts left the front line on 10th September, 1942 and made his way back to Port Moresby reaching HQ on 11th to prepare his reports. On 22nd October he received a phone call from Blamey.

Blamey said “Change of climate for you Potts. You go to Darwin. Your successor, Dougherty will meet you tomorrow and take over”.

This sacking of Potts reverberated among the Army and fuelled a fire that had been smouldering ever since Blamey’s insulting speech to the 30th brigade at Koitaki Plantation.

 'Remember' Blamey said, 'it is not the man with the gun that gets shot; it's the rabbit that is running away' 

LT COL Carlyon, OBE, who served as Blamey’s ADC wrote, “I was there when those fine soldiers formed up, not far from what had been the start-line for their thrust against the enemy. New Guinea’s stormy temperatures being what they are, it may seem absurd for me to say that I was in a cold sweat. Standing beside the small platform from which Blamey was to address the troops, I realised that he was in a most aggressive mood. He was soon expressing this in harsh words. He told the men that they had been defeated, that he had been defeated, and Australia had been defeated. He said this was simply not good enough. Every soldier here had to remember that he was worth three Japanese. In future, he expected no further retirement but advance at all costs.  It amazed me that Blamey should deal so insensitively with the men of such a well-proved brigade”

It was not just an unjust treatment of a man who had done more than could have reasonably been expected of any officer but the insensitive manner of its delivery was despicable. Potts was never again given a senior field command.

I have been asked to do a contribution on General Thomas Blamey for PR but have declined to do so. My reason is that I regard Blamey as an indelible black blot, not just on the military history of our country, but on its overall general history as well. He is best forgotten as much as is possible and remembered  as the most hated person ever to don our uniform.

Further reading:

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1043-the-raaf-s-forgotten-finest-hour

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1086-the-battle-of-the-coral-sea

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1057-those-ragged-bloody-heroes-the-39th-battalion-at-kokoda

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/899-hold-hands-and-never-give-up-hope

 https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/610-the-fuzzy-wuzzy-angels

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/102-ww2-in-the-jungles-of-papua-new-guinea

 

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