Bert and ‘the Boss’—The Unsung Victors of Kokoda by Ralph Sawyer

Brigadier Potts with his adjutant 21st Brigade at Menari Kokoda Trail—his officers were not generally as spic and span as in this photograph

In all wars the side with superior supplies and intelligence usually wins. This turned out so in the New Guinea campaign. The American resources eventually triumphed over the Japanese forces. US Intelligence broke the Japanese naval codes, which gave them the decisive critical advantage at Midway and later battles.
HOWEVER, IN THE early months of 1942 the Japanese seemed to have overwhelming advantage over the paltry Australian forces available. As the months rolled by the Australians gradually gained the advantage; this was largely due to superior intelligence and resources. To start with, the isolated coast watchers reported the enemy fleet leaving Rabaul for Moresby and hence set up the strategic victory at the Coral Sea.
Once the superior Japanese army landed at Buna and headed over the Owen Stanley Ranges, their ignorance of Papuan conditions began to tell. They had limited supply of carriers, no knowledge of native foods and uncertain local support. The Australian opposition was keen and awfully green, but they had behind them a reservoir of local human resources and skills that made all the difference.
In March 1942 the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU) was a mix of civilians ranging from planters to traders, from bank tellers to public works foremen. At its core, ANGAU consisted of patrol officers and resident magistrates who had the experience and the skills to suit the Papuan situation. These men had oversight of one hundred loyal Royal Papuan Constables (RPC)and the foundation members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB). The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) were added to this new composite auxiliary force.

Captain Tom Grahamshaw with SM Katu (PIB) and two RPC scouts (Source: AWM)

Out of this talented mix emerged a man with all the local skills and knowledge. His name was Herbert (Bert) Kienzle, owner and manager of a rubber plantation at Yodda, one day’s walk on from Kokoda. As Captain Kienzle, he was given the task of surveying a vehicle road to Kokoda and completing the road by September 1942! We’re still waiting!
Kienzle didn’t bother arguing but set off to see what he could do. He recruited one thousand carriers from Sogeri and Lakekamu plantations to carry up emergency rations for the first company of the 39th battalion that was being rushed up to occupy Kokoda before the Japanese arrived. As Kienzle marked the walking track, the soldiers followed the freshly slashed trees one day behind him.
At every overnight stop Captain Kienzle left rations with two Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) soldiers and twenty carriers to build rough bush huts for future shelter. Remember that these carriers were working at altitudes up to 6,000 feet. At Kokoda, Kienzle walked on to his plantation, recruited three hundred fresh carriers and collected kaukau and bananas for the return trip to Moresby. Back at Moresby on 17 July he presented the impossible equation to General Morris:
1. A carrier eats his load in twelve days.
2. It takes eight days to walk to Kokoda
3. That leaves four days’ rations for each walking soldier.
4. Factor in ammunition, medicine and other supplies
5. Conclusion—Maintenance of supplies is unsustainable.
Kienzle headed up the track again with another thousand carriers. By 28 July the Japanese had taken Kokoda and the long fighting retreat to Moresby had started for the Australians. Kienzle cut a detour track to take Myola 1 and 2, which were grassland semi-alpine lakes, suitable for air drops of supplies instead of human carriers.
While he was doing this, he improved all his depots and minimised carrier desertions by discipline, supply of rations, medical treatment and cold weather clothes. It is estimated that largely through Kienzle’s inspirational leadership, 7,000 labourers were recruited for the Kokoda Trail and the Bulldog Track up the Lakekamu to Wau. The heavy price for this sudden conscription of labourers was major social dislocation in Papuan villages, and unknown numbers of deaths from disease, overwork and harsh conditions.

Brigadier Arnold Potts, Bougainville, 1945(Source: AWM)

The remarkable achievement of Herbert Kienzle was that he was able to organise the supply line in one month from June to August 1942, mark the Kokoda Trail, organise the carriers and find the Myola lakes for efficient air drops. Neither the Australian army nor the Japanese forces were capable of maintaining their extended supply line. Kienzle made the difference.
He kept up the pace until he collapsed in August 1942 and was repatriated to Australia. By that time, other ANGAU officers had embedded themselves into the regular army in various tasks ranging from supervising airstrip building to guiding infantry in pursuit of retreating Japanese. After the war Herbert Kienzle went back to rebuild his plantation at Yodda. He was never recognised for his extraordinary efforts and is rarely mentioned in formal histories of the Kokoda Campaign.
The other key man who defeated the Japanese on the track was Brigadier Arnold Potts or ‘the boss’. Potts was a child immigrant to Western Australia from the Isle of Man. He enlisted as a private and survived the Gallipoli campaign as a captain with a Military Cross. Twice wounded on the western front, he ended as a major with DSO (Distinguished Service Order). In the Second World War, Potts fought all the King’s enemies—Vichy French, Italians, Germans and Japanese. As a relatively junior officer in the Western Desert, Potts learned the importance of securing the lines of communication and supply.
In February 1942 he was promoted to Brigadier Potts, DSO, and transferred as commanding officer ‘Maroubra Force Papua’. This force was composed of the 39th Battalion militia and several companies of the 14th and 16th Battalions, which were hurriedly being sent back from North Africa. By July 1942 about 400 of these men had reached Kokoda and were preparing to meet the 2,000 Japanese who had landed at Buna and were working their way up towards Kokoda.
General Macarthur in Brisbane ordered ‘The Gap’ in the Owen Stanley Mountains to be bombed to destroy the advancing enemy and block up access to the Kokoda Trail. Unfortunately, Macarthur’s knowledge was limited to western movies where the Indians were ambushed in dry gulches. Only the birds were frightened in the Papuan mountains.
Potts began with a fighting retreat all the way down the track. He realised that if he attempted a showdown with his inferior forces, the Japanese would outflank, envelop and destroy his force. Pott’s tactics had its advantages because the Australians were able to set up ambushes on narrow ridges and then retreat to the next high ground. The narrow ridges meant that the Japanese could never employ their superior numbers. He followed the right tactics considering that he commanded less than a thousand fit men at any one time.
With the advantage of air drops the Australian supply line was becoming more assured. As the Japanese advanced, their supply lines stretched further and further. A combination of casualties, disease and shortages in food, ammunition and medicine sapped their energy. In August, another 4,000 enemy reinforcements reached Kokoda from the Papuan north coast but the Japanese effectiveness was discounted by the relative volume of supply and the narrow limit of the front for the front-line troops to operate.
The Japanese advance stalled at Imita Ridge. They could see the lights of Port Moresby but could go no further. Their reinforcements had helped but three new factors decided the end of their advance. The Australians now had a vehicle track to their front line at Owers’ Corner, about twenty miles from Moresby. Japanese air intelligence overestimated that Moresby now had 6,000 defenders. In the big picture the Japanese had suffered recent heavy losses at Guadalcanal so that Moresby was no longer feasible or so much a priority. Potts’ fighting withdrawal had paid off.
Macarthur did not see it that way. The Australians would not stand and make a fight of it. General Blamey was sent up by a nervous Australian government to shake things up. His position was threatened so he set about sacking his two top commanders—General Syd Rowell and Brigadier Potts. Arnold Potts did not go quietly, which did not further his career. He spent most of the rest of the war as Garrison Commander, Darwin. Most of his officers sent in a letter of support for him, but their impertinence was ignored.
A week after the sacking, Blamey held a parade at Koitaki Plantation for a pep talk. The 39th Battalion was there, the whole eighty-nine survivors with their colonel, Ralph Honner. They expected some praise for their efforts but got a negative lecture instead. The general’s punchline was ‘remember men, the rabbit that sits tight survives, the rabbit that runs gets shot.’ There were a few rumbles from the ranks but Colonel Honner told them that their leadership was not worthy. The last hurrah for the 39th was the desperate attack at Gona three months later. All their junior officers led from the front and were nearly all casualties. The battalion was pulled out of the line and flown back to Port Moresby. As they straggled into Soputa an outsider shouted out ‘What mob are you?’
‘This is no mob, this is the 39th,’ answered the colonel.
The battalion never reformed again. The survivors were sprinkled into other units and the 39th never got to march in Anzac Day marches. u
FOOTNOTES
1. Most people refer to the ‘track’ rather than ‘trail’. Herbert Kienzle’s daughter stated that her father referred to it as ‘the trail’. This was probably influenced by the Macarthur communiqués and other publications.
2. The author has recently found a poem written by Sapper HE Bert Beros NX6925 in 1943 entitled ‘The Crosses on the Kokoda Track’. One of the lines reads ‘We pass the crude wood crosses on the wild Kokoda trail.’
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