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Battle Honour 1st RNSWL


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Wareo

The battle for Wareo 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

Realising that his forces in the area inland north of Sattelberg were in danger of being trapped by our latest moves which now threatened the Wareo-Bonga track, the enemy commenced a drive calculated to regain the North Hill-Pabu area. A strong force advanced south from the vicinity of Bonga along the coastal track in an attempt to retake the ground to the Song River, including North Hill. Repeated and heavy assaults were made on positions around North Hill that were held by elements of the 2/43rd Battalion and the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, but all were beaten back with heavy losses. The Australians then launched a counter-attack and on 28 November the 2/28th Battalion with 3 Troop in support commenced to clear the area along the coast between North Hill and Bonga. The coastal track ran through flat marshy ground covered with jungle; tanks could seldom get off the track and necessarily had to follow the infantry because of delays at numerous creeks where crossings had to be made. Generally, all creeks encountered proved to be obstacles to the passage of the tanks and bridges had to be constructed or the banks broken down. The enemy attempted to impose delays by sawing through some of the bridges they themselves had constructed. A surprising feature was that apart from building a few miserable excuses for bridges the Japs did little or nothing to improve roads and tracks. Under the circumstances normal jungle formation and tactics were adopted. Some opposition was encountered from suicide and rearguard parties and siiipers. Where such resistance was heavy the infantry simply waited for the tanks to come up and their supporting fire was always decisive. It was obvious that a very large Jap force in strong positions had been in the area and had made a hasty retreat, probably the noise of the approaching tanks had had something to do with this.

The occupation of Bonga on 30 November was the, beginning of the end for the hard-pressed Japs who were now in a desperaae position. Having lost control of Bonga and a section of the to Wareo, they were now forced to use the long and almost impassable track between Kiligia and Wareo to supply their forces inland. The 24th Brigade now faced west from Bonga to drive along the track towards Wareo and the 4th Brigade, which had come under command of the 9th Division, took over the drive northward along the coastal track, its objective being the high ground at Fortification Point. Both operations were to be supported by tanks and what was known about the terrain in both sectors promised extremely difficult going. The Bonga-Wareo track ran through country that generally consisted of steep kunai slopes with large patches of jungle. The track followed along a high spur with numerous ravines on each side. The coastal track north from Bonga for some distance ran through flat swampy ground intersected by numerous banked creeks; there were some patches of kunai but generally thick secondary growth predominated on the narrow coastal flat with steep kunai hills to the west.

Squadron tanks, vehicles and personnel were beginning to feel the strain of the arduous weeks. The jeeps were badly in need of maintenance and their drivers were feeling the effects of working hard and long to keep supplies up to the tanks in different areas. A grave shortage of spare parts kept some tanks immobile and replacements were not coming forward, causing more frequent breakdowns.

Pushing along the Wareo track with the 2/28th Battalion, 3 Troop reached the feature named Oriental, site of a large Jap headquarters which was given up without a fight, the enemy withdrawing into the jungle leaving piles of equipment behind. Pabu was reached on December 1, and once again the engineers gave valuable assistance by cutting a track around the hill with a dozer. The 2/43rd Battalion had relieved the force that had held Pabu, and were to push on with the tanks. Covered by an artillery barrage, the advance moved through "Lilac Valley" towards "Horace's Ears". The title "Lilac Valley" was inspired by hundreds of Jap dead who had lost their lives in the attacks on Pabu, dying among the tall kunai grass on the slopes of the bill. After the days of withdrawals and retreats the enemy now stood his ground at Horace's Ears and fought back bitterly with everything he had including a 75 mm. gun, used over open sights, a number of 37 mm. guns and several heavy and light machine guns, but by dusk the attackers had consolidated on Horace's Ears. One of the tanks had broken down on a steep kunai incline after forcing its way through thick jungle to clear out several bunker positions. The feature was honeycombed with bunkers and foxholes and the tanks had done deadly work. Casualties among the infantry were severe but were far outnumbered by the Jap losses.

On 2 December, 3 Troop was relieved and returned to a bivouac on Oriental while a composite troop of the headquarters tanks and one of 2 Troop resumed the advance with D company, 2/43rd Battalion. The plan was to keep the tanks in reserve to be called forward when resistance was encountered. One tank broke down soon after moving out. Approaching Kalueng Lakes fierce and concentrated machine gun fire from a heavily timbered creek on the left of the track, where a large force of enemy was strongly entrenched in positions sited well clear of the track, pinned the infantry down. Two tanks moved up and poured round after round of high explosive at point blank range into the Japs, reducing everything to a shambles. When returning one tank got badly bogged and was left with some infantry for protection.

The infantry who had continued along the track were stopped again after gaining approximately 100 metres. The remaining tank "Costello" manned by Warrant Officer Norm Faull, LanceCorporal Barham and Troopers Hudson and Whalan went forward to assist. It was immediately engaged by a 37 mm. gun at about 50 metres. At the same time the driver, "Tanky" Barham, discovered to his consternation that right in front and almost under the 2-pounder about 20 Japs were crouched in an anti-tank ditch. The enemy gun was sited in dense jungle with firelanes cut and fired off two shots before it was located by the tank crew. One of these shots broke a track and the other scored a hit on the turret ring, so the tank could neither move nor traverse its guns. Though the tank's gun was pointed in the direction of the 37-mm. it could not successfully engage it; neither could it depress sufficiently to fire on the Japs in the ditch, who were throwing grenades and anti-tank mines on to the tank. One mine landed on top of the driver's hatch, temporarily stunning Barham. Meanwhile another enemy heavy gun, probably a 75-mm., had come into the fight. "Costello" sustained more than 50 hits - both tracks were broken, both front idlers shot away, the suspension damaged and the skirting holed in several places. Numerous hits were scored on the turret and to the crew inside the effect was no worse than if someone was hitting the outside with a sledge hammer, though all felt the effects of fumes. After exhausting all their ammunition, in the course of which most of the enemy in the ditch were killed or knocked out by muzzle blast of the 2-pounder, the tank crew called the supporting tank on the wireless to secure covering fire from infantry to enable them to escape from the tank. Corporal Noel Miller, in charge of the second tank, left it by the main hatch and ran under fire to the infantry position. The infantry were still pinned down by concentrated fire, so Miller returned to his tank and informed "Costello's" crew no help could be given by the infantry. The crew locked the hatches and crawled out by the escape hatch; then they crawled or dug their way out under the tank and got safely back to the infantry who had formed a perimeter a short distance back. Soon afterwards some Japs, unaware the crew had escaped, climbed on the tank and attempted to open the hatch with a pick; the infantry let them go for a short time before sending them to join their ancestors.

That was the end of the action. The Jap heavy gun and the 37 mm. had not been eliminated, and the three tanks with the forward troops were all out of action. The following morning a 3 Troop tank from Oriental went in with the infantry to find most of the enemy had pulled out, leaving only a small rearguard who were quickly eliminated. Nothing was heard or seen of the enemy guns; the Japs had either towed them away or pushed them over the hill where the ground fell straight down to the lakes, 30 metres below. In the night the Japs had made unsuccessful attempts to enter the tank; they ringed it with mines which unfortunately caused the death of some infantry.

The country into which the advance now moved was becoming very mountainous and impassable for tanks, so the infantry went on alone to join up later with 26th Brigade who were moving north towards Wareo. The six tanks that had taken part in the operation were assembled at Oriental. "Costello" was temporarily patched up and driven off under its own power to be later made fit for action, though badly pitted and scarred. During this time the 26th Brigade had been advancing through difficult country and had fought several battles. At Kuanko they had encountered a large force of strongly entrenched Japs who were forced back after a desperate and bitter battle. They had withstood several frontal and flanking and suicidal attacks which were broken up with artillery and mortar assistance before Kuanko was finally taken on 6 December.

PV Vernon Royal New South Wales Lancers 18851985 Parramatta 1985

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