The Royal New South Wales Lancers

Battle Honour 1st RNSWL

Guisika Fortification Point

The battle for Gusika was fought by C Squadron 1st Army Tank Battalion (Royal New South Wales Lancers) in late 1943.

Senior Postings were:

  Officer Commanding: Major S. Hordern
  Second in Command: Captain R.J.F. Downes
  Liaison Officer: Captain J.K. Hart
  Admin Troop Commander: Lieutenant J.M. Ryan
  Reconnaissance Officer: Lieutenant H.C. Curtayne
  Squadron Sergeant Major: Warrant Officer Class 2: N. Faull
  1 Troop Commander: Lieutant D. Skinner
  2 Troop Commander: Lieutant J.A. Sellars
  3 Troop Commander: Lieutant C.J. Watson
  4 Troop Commander: Lieutant S.E. Johnston
  5 Troop Commander: Lieutant J.L. O'Donnell

During the operation along the axis of the Bonga-Wareo track C Squadron had established a forward headquarters near Bonga which was also the headquarters of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. Two troops of tanks were to support the 4th Brigade in this campaign; 4 Troop complete and a composite troop under Lieutenant Don Skinner made up of two tanks of 1 Troop and one of 5 Troop. The 29th/46th Battalion had pushed out from Bonga, taken the native garden village of Gusika and established a perimeter along the south bank of the River Kalueng, not very far from the squadron's forward headquarters.

Things were somewhat confused; nobody knew from what direction any attack by the enemy might come and everyone was a little edgy and "trigger-happy". On 3 December the forward troops crossed the Kalueng and drove the enemy from a position astride the track about 500 metres north of Gusika, where several rows of anti-tank mines were found laid along the track. The Kalueng was a major obstacle to the tanks, with sheer banks 60 feet high and a boulder-strewn bottom. It was not until December 5 that 4 Troop was able to cross after the ever-reliable engineers had done a magnificent job of constructing a crossing. The troop took up the advance with the infantry and was soon called into action when the infantry's progress was stopped by heavy concentration of machine gun fire. The tanks moved up in line ahead to engage the enemy positions. However right in front of the Japs the leading tank "Calamity Jane" ran on to a minefield which blew up, breaking a track. The minefield combined with natural obstacles stepped the other Matildas; from their stationary positions the three tanks poured heavy fire into the Jap bunkers and foxholes after which the infantry went in and occupied the position, meeting little opposition. "Calamity Jane's" track was replaced and it moved off again. Immediately there was a terrible explosion which lifted "Jane" completely off the ground, blew the bottom off the engine compartment, smashed the motors and gearbox and wrote "finish" to her career; Driver Crane was shaken and shocked but otherwise unhurt.

The composite troop under Lieutenant Skinner was called up but could not proceed far beyond the damaged tank owing to a steeply banked, swift flowing stream 50 metres further on. The infantry pushed across and formed a perimeter and the engineers commenced to build a bridge. The tanks were able to cross on the following morning and moved very cautiously along the line of advance to catch up with the infantry who had moved on without opposition.

Realising the Japs were at last adopting effective anti-tank measures, tank crews were watching very closely for indications of mines. Skinner's tank was leading as the advance proceeded slowly along the track when suddenly the shattering explosion of a mine lifted the tank into the air. On examination it was found that the whole of one bogey assembly was smashed and a large section of track blown to bits. Time necessary to effect repairs was estimated at about two days, so the remaining two tanks resumed the advance with the infantry.

The Japs had previously found their Type 93 mine ineffective. Now they were attaching prepared picric acid charges to bundles of these mines, burying them deeply on and off the track and concealing them cleverly. The uncertainty of locating the mines with detectors or by probing with a bayonet made the track too dangerous and the advance was now made through the dense jungle along a parallel route. Difficulties came thick and fast; the ground became treacherous, the leading tank got bogged in very soft ground and started to sink. It was pulled out by the other tank. Meanwhile, the infantry who had gone on had struck serious resistance from a large force of Japs strongly entrenched with many automatic weapons and the advance had come to a standstill. For the first time the tanks could not get engineer assistance and their progress stopped. Major Hordern, with his usual determination that the tanks should be present if there was any fighting to be done, set the troops to work cutting trees to corduroy a track, himself working hardest of all. However, it was not until the following day was drawing to a close that the troop caught up with the infantry who did not conceal their elation at the Matildas' appearance, as for 24 hours they had been pinned down. On the other hand there was disappointment for Major Hordern as the Japs hurriedly withdrew to safer places without firing a shot immediately they heard the tanks approaching.

Their failure to stop the tanks had demoralised the Japs and for some days hardly any were encountered when the tanks preceded or moved with the infantry, but when they fell behind because of terrain difficulties the enemy would always resist. For about a week the Japs were chased, during which time the crews worked like galley slaves, cutting timber, corduroying tracks and assisting the engineers to get the tanks over the unending and difficult streams and through the dense jungle. In that time only a few scrappy little actions were fought and crews were becoming fed up. Some personnel were suffering from dengue fever and tropical skin troubles. Rations were most uninteresting and a break from front line duty was badly needed. With the constant rain and humidity clothing was rotting away and though the men had learned to mike the best of what was available, living conditions were deplorable. Worst of all, tanks and jeeps were desperately in need of maintenance.

During progress up the coastal track the left flank had been protected by another battalion of 4th Brigade who were moving through high ground against less opposition. Kiligia had been taken and the force had moved up to the south bank of the fast flowing, wide Sowi River when news was received that the remainder of the regimental group less B Squadron had landed at Finschhafen and "A" Squadron would soon relieve C Squadron. At the Sowi Lieutenant Skinner astonished the infantry by his skill with a rifle. A party of infantry and tank men were on the south side and at the mouth of the Sowi when a number of Japs broke from cover below and ran up the beach on the north side. The infantry opened up without result until Don Skinner grabbed the infantry officer's rifle and dropped the last Jap as he was disappearing into the jungle 400 metres away.

C Squadron was not to be relieved without one last fight, for the Japs had decided to make a stand forward of Lakona from where a track ran inland through the mountains for many miles to the Wareo area. The tanks were moving along with the infantry, approaching a heavily timbered creek after a long peaceful spell, when the enemy suddenly surprised them and opened up with rifle and automatic weapons, causing casualties among the infantry. Meanwhile Major Hordern and Lieutenant John Emmott had manoeuvred the other tanks by walkie-talkie to a position in jungle so thick that though separated by only 10 metres, the crew of one tank could not see the others. From this position they proceeded to blast the enemy. The battle raged furiously for an hour before the Japs fled in disorder, leaving piles of equipment and many dead.

All troops were having a brief respite and the inevitable brew of tea after consolidating when suddenly the crews cocked their cars and someone called for silence. Away in the distance could be heard the unmistakable sound of Matildas moving fast. Some tanks of "A" Squadron had landed from a barge at Sowi, or Coconut, Beach, immediately north of Kiligia and the mouth of the Sowi, to relieve C Squadron. For a couple of days the new arrivals worked under the direction of Major Hordern who then was unlucky enough to sustain a back injury which caused his evacuation to hospital. C Squadron moved its headquarters to a rear area; three of its troops still had operational roles at Sattelberg, Gusika and on the high ground overlooking Bonga. The squadron had come out of this series of operations very well; only one member, Trooper W. McKay, had been severely wounded, and only one tank had been lost

PV Vernon Royal New South Wales Lancers 18851985 Parramatta 1985

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