Battle of Milne Bay

The Battle of Milne Bay was the Allies’ first defeat of Japanese forces on land during the Second World War.

31 January 2020

1942 stands as one of the most significant years in Australia’s wartime history. As Australians fought in defence of our shores, there were major battles in Papua: along the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay and at the Beacheads of Buna, Gona and, in early 1943, Sanananda.

On the night of 25–26 August 1942, a Japanese amphibious invasion force landed on the northern shore of Milne Bay at the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea. The aim was to secure a base from which to provide air and naval support for the overland attempt to take Port Moresby.

The Japanese landing was opposed by Kittyhawk fighters of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF.

For the next two days the Japanese, with tank support, gradually advanced towards the airstrips situated in the lowlands at the head of the bay. As they moved forward, the enemy soldiers were constantly harassed by the RAAF aircraft.

By the night of 31 August, the Japanese had fought their way to the No 3 strip (Turnbull Field).

The Australian and American defenders fired starshells which revealed the enemy soldiers bunching around the edge of the airfield.

As the Japanese advanced, they were cut down by artillery, mortars and machine-guns. While they tried to outflank these guns, they were successfully opposed from higher ground.

Just before dawn on 1 September, the enemy began to retreat towards their invasion base, all the while pursued by Australian infantry.

On 4 September, Corporal John French, 2/9th Battalion, charged and captured three enemy gun pits, one after the other. French was killed and for his bravery was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The Japanese navy evacuated the invasion force’s survivors on 6–7 September. Overall the Australian defenders had suffered 373 battle casualties, of whom 167 died or were missing in action. Their American comrades suffered 14 killed. About 750 Japanese were killed.

The Battle of Milne Bay was hailed at the time as the first significant defeat of a Japanese force on land in the Second World War and an important morale booster for the Allies.

The loss of a key launching site for sea and air support also proved costly for Japan’s advance along the Kokoda Track and within a month the tide in Papua New Guinea was turning in Australia’s favour.

Fact facts

Australians who served

  • Some 7,500 Australians: Army and RAAF

Major units

  • 9th, 2/9th 2/10th, 2/12th, 25th, 61st Army Battalions
  • 6, 75, 76, 30 and 100 Squadrons RAAF

Casualties

  • 167 Australians killed
  • More than 200 Australians wounded
  • 14 Americans killed
  • Up to 1,500 Japanese killed

Specific medals

  • Posthumous Victoria Cross awarded to Corporal John French of 2/9th Battalion

Commemorations in PNG

  • Milne Bay Memorial commemorates those who served and died in the Battle of Milne Bay
  • Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery
  • Bita Paka War Cemetery
  • Lae War Cemetery

More information