CAPTAIN HARRY KATEKAR M.I.D.
Most of us in the modern western world are lucky enough, never to know hunger. An intense kind of hunger, the sort that gnaws away at your stomach causing you to drop around 12 kilograms of body weight in less than two weeks.
Very few of us know what it is like to sleep in pouring rain, to be constantly wet with nothing but a cotton shirt or thin woolen pullover to protect you from the elements. Nor do we know what it is to suffer from festering open wounds – where your only chance to ward off gangrene, is to allow maggots to infest your injury and eat away the rotten flesh.
But then again, most of us did not happen to grow up in South Australia during the nineteen twenties or thirties and find ourselves going off to the Second World War with the 2/27th Infantry Battalion.
Perhaps the young Harry Katekar, who had recently graduated from university with a degree in Law with ambitions of opening his own Solicitor's office, would also not have dreamed of experiencing such hardships.
Henry John Katekar or 'Harry' as he was more commonly known was born on the 24 August, 1914 at Mile End in South Australia. Educated at Scotch College – Harry graduated with a law degree from Adelaide University in 1937. He was in the process of setting up a practice for a law firm in Renmark when the Second World War broke out. Having entered into a binding agreement with the proprietors of the law firm, he received their consent to break the contract and enlisted into the Second AIF.
He would enter the South Australian 2/27 Infantry Battalion in May of 1940 as a Private. However, in accordance with his educational background -Harry was offered a commission and promoted to Lieutenant.
After Greece and Crete had fallen, it was thought that the Germans might attempt to capture the Suez Canal by attacking through Lebanon and then Syria. Units from 7th Division moved from Palestine to strengthen the defences along the Libyan border; however a German attack failed to eventuate.
The men of 21 Brigade then returned to Palestine in late May of 1941, in order to prepare for the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon. However, their enemy in this engagement was not to be the German Army. Instead they would fight French troops of the Vichy Government who despised the "Free French" and their leader, Charles De Gaulle.
It was hoped that these Vichy French troops would capitulate, however nothing was further from the truth. They were large in number and well equipped. Their ranks also included the hardened men of the legendary French Foreign Legion. So with a distinct hatred for their countrymen who were allied with Great Britain; the Vichy French would prove to be a tough and determined foe. After five weeks of bitter fighting, the Australians would prove victorious in July of 1941.
A decision by the British Prime Minster, Winston Churchill to send the 7th Australian Division to the Far East, was countermand by Australia's Prime Minister; John Curtain after Singapore fell to the Japanese. As a result, the 7th Australian Division was brought back to defend their homeland, arriving in back in Australia in March 1942.
When the Japanese landed at Gona in July 1942, the 2/27 Battalion would find themselves en route to Port Moresby along with their compatriots of 21 Brigade (the 2/14 Battalion from Victoria and the 2/16 Battalion from Western Australia). At this time, the Militia Battalions 39 and 53 were already fighting for their lives on the Kokoda Track.
As the 2/14 Battalion pushed forward to assist the beleaguered 39 Infantry Battalion (A.M.F) the 2/16 Battalion soon followed. The South Australians of the 2/27 Battalion were tasked to stay behind and garrison Port Moresby; pending the outcome of the Milne Bay action being fought at that time.
It was only when the Japanese were repulsed at Milne Bay which then allowed the 2/27 to be ordered forward in a grueling forced march over the Track. Any ideas of defending Myola by this stage had to be abandoned. Brigadier Potts' next defensive position was the feature known as 'Brigade Hill'. Some would call it "Butchers Hill". But with the arrival of the 2/27 at Mission Ridge (the northern slope leading up to Brigade Hill), allowed all the battalions in 21 Brigade to be together. Though the Victorians and their Western Australian battalions were exhausted and depleted as a result of the fighting withdrawal from Isurava and Abuari.
Harry Katekar and his men would find themselves in the fight of their lives. Despite the fact that Harry was now Battalion Adjutant, he and all of his colleagues of the Headquarters (H.Q.) Company would be in the thick of the battle. Tuesday, 7 September, 1942 would be a day that the South Australians would never forget.
With the 2/27 Battalion dug in on the slopes of Mission Ridge in a tight diamond shaped perimeter, 'A' Coy was on the front – right of the "diamond" and bore the brunt of the attacks. The Japanese hammered the 2/27 Infantry Battalion with their mountain guns and mortars, supported by heavy 7.7 caliber Juki machine guns.
The Australians had very little in the way of 'long range' weapons to respond. However, the Australians had done very well prior to the lead up of the Brigade Hill battle. By this date; and General Horii's rather ambitious timetable – his Japanese forces should have been in Port Moresby not Brigade Hill. He had been forced to lose 4 days at Isurava and had lost another 6 before deploying his force near Mission Ridge. (P 199 – A Bastard of a Place)
According to author Peter Brune: ' At best - the Australians mustered about 980 men and the Japanese outnumbered them approximately 4 or 5 to 1. (Pg 200 – A Bastard of a Place). Bill James; the author of the Field Guide To The Kokoda Track – suggests that figure could be as high as 6 to 1 (p. 225 – Field Guide). Regardless of the figures, the Japanese still held the upper hand. By nightfall of 7 September, six of the Battalions prized Brens had been knocked out by Japanese fire - their entire supply of 1200 grenades was used up (plus the Battalion reserve of grenades) and each rifleman had fired at least 100 rounds per man. Not to mention, the Diggers were suffering from the severe heat of the New Guinea sun and a shortage of water.
Things went badly for the Australians on other parts of Brigade Hill, forcing Brigadier Potts to break contact with the Japanese on 8 September. The 2/27 was subsequently forced to take to the jungle with the intention of regaining the trail at the village of Menari. With the track cut off to them, remnants of 2/14, 2/16 and the 2/27 Battalions, took to the bush through a steep and narrow track in a bid to reach Menari. Fighting a rearguard action as they left Mission Ridge, the tail end sections of 2/27 made several short, sharp rushes back towards the Japanese – with the bayonet, to confuse the Japanese attackers and slow down their advance.
It was a point of pride for the men of the 2/27 Battalion that they never gave any ground to the Japanese. Their withdrawal only came about as a result of Japanese successes elsewhere on Brigade Hill.
Encumbered by 16 stretcher cases – from all three units – the 2/27 Battalion was forced to regain its lines via a 14 day trek through some of the toughest terrain in the world. Recalling the event of 13 September, 1942, Harry said:
"The wounded, God only knows, were going through purgatory, hungry and in great pain. Some of our natives began t desert, meaning that our men had to replace them as bearers (understandably, the native would soon be gone). ‘Doc’ Viner-Smith allowed the maggots to remain on the wounds in order to eat the rotting flesh and so prevent gangrene … I found it a great mental strain and so did the C.O. and other officers, with that great responsibility of not only saving our wounded but of saving ourselves from starvation”. He had run out of food four days previously.
On 15 September, 1942 – Harry Katekar made a very welcome discovery. He would tell author Peter Brune in July of 1987:
"By this time the men were desperately exhausted and it was a cruel blow to them to be told to about-turn. A couple of providential incidents occurred that day; it seemed as if God was taking a hand in the matter. While we were waiting outside Nauro it suddenly occurred to me that a lot of the food which had been dropped by our planes would be scattered far and wide in the undergrowth around the village ..... I wandered off into the jungle in search of food. Something must have led me to the spot, for after a while I noticed that a branch of a tree had been broken off, as if by a fallen object and so looking down I saw a bag covered bundle. Almost tenderly I went down on my knees to tear away some of the bag. And lo and behold inside was a perfectly good tin of Arnott's Army biscuits. Some of the starving men were watching me, and it was as much as I could do to stop them from struggling to get a share. I managed to salvage some of the biscuits which were distributed amongst our wounded. In the meantime a flank guard patrol of 'B' Company had stumbled over a 25 lb tin of Crowe & Newcombe's dried apricots ...."
Harry Katekar's untiring efforts greatly assisted the return march. He had organised the whole column so that all burdens were shared equally and the battalion's strength was conserved. As a result, he and his fellow officers brought the battalion home – intact and still with the weight of their weapons. It is hard for one to imagine now, but the joy of reaching the Australian lines, knowing that fresh troops had now taken over the battle – would be dampened by an incident which is now infamous in Australian Military History.
The 2/27 Infantry Battalion, after enduring such hardship – was present at the Koitaki Plantation when General Blamey made his famous speech: "It's the rabbit that is running away" to the troops of 21 Brigade.
Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Carlyon O.B.E was General Blamey's Aide-De-Camp during 1940-1942, Personal Assistant during 1942-1944 and Military Assistant during 1944-1945. In the book, "I Remember Blamey" he recalls:
"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. He concluded with a remark which I think was particularly ill-chosen and unfair. 'Remember' he said, 'it is not the man with the gun that gets shot; it's the rabbit that is running away' It amazed me that Blamey should deal so insensitively with the men of such a well-proved brigade" (Page 17 – Gona's Gone, Peter Brune)
After a short respite, the men of the 2/27th were again thrust into the horrors of combat. On November 28, 1942, the 2/27th arrived at Gona with 22 officers and 301 other ranks; only to suffer further heavy losses in desperate attacks – against Japanese machine-gun fire.
The Japanese positions at Gona were very well dug in, and laid out in such a way so as to give supporting fire to each other. To attack one position, meant that you drew heavy fire from other machine guns on your flanks. Harry Katekar would be one of only three officers to fly out after the battle with 67 other ranks. About the Gona fighting, Harry would again make reference to the Koitaki incident and comment:
"And they were absolutely ropable! Incensed! In fact I claim to this day that some of the officers who we lost at Gona were killed because of the effect of Blamey's unfair criticism...."
Harry also told author Peter Brune:
"We were thrown in with scant information about the enemy, no aerial photographs, nothing to go on. I don't recall ever seeing a proper plan of the are showing where 25th Brigade was at that time when we were supposed to go in or, in fact, what the 2/14th were doing on our right. The whole thing was rushed and therefor one can expect there to be what actually transpired – a slaughter of good men! The correct way to get information is to send in recce patrols. That's always the way you do it, because you get the enemy to disclose where he is. You don't go in with a full company rushing in against something you know nothing about".
Harry would later serve as Brigade Major to 6 Brigade and was one of only two Australian officers, sent to the U.S. Marine Amphibious Landing School in Quantico, Virginia. Upon his return from the United States; he would serve as Brigade Major for 26 Brigade and finally finish his war service at Tarakan. The World War Two Nominal Roll states that Harry discharged from the AIF on 30 November, 1945. He ended the war with the same posting that he had joined at the start of the war; the 2/27 Australian Infantry Battalion.
With Harry's father taking ill, he made the decision not to return to his law practice. Rather the decision was made to run the family citrus property at Renmark titled "Fairview". Harry joined the Riverland Legacy Group in 1947 and served as its chairman in 1952. He also joined the Renmark RSL, serving as its president in 1951. In continuing his service to the community; Harry became a member of the Renmark Irrigation Trust and became actively involved in citrus industry moves, to form a statutory citrus committee in the 1960′s. This eventually led to the formation of the Citrus Board of South Australia. He was also one of the first growers to later test the suitability of the Riverland area for the production of avocados. But Mr Katerkar's greatest peacetime achievement was probably his role as chairman of the Renmark Flood Emergency Committee during the River Murray flood of 1956.
Second World War service medals of Captain Henry 'Harry' John Kateker, from left:- the 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 War Medal (note the Oak Leaf on the ribbon to signify M.I.D. or Mentioned In Dispatches) and the 1939-1945 Australia Service Medal.
Article written Gary Traynor. Gary lives Moruya, NSW. After retiring from the NSW Police Force, Gary has made numerous trips to Australian battlefields around the world including leading many treks over the Kokoda Track. Gary has also spent time working in the Military Heraldry section of the Australian War Memorial.
To read the transcript of an interview of Harry Katekar made in 1990, please click here:
Gary reunited the service medals of Harry Katekar with his family in 2010 and David Howell from Kokoda Historical had the pleasure of leading Harry's daughter and son-in-law on their pilgrimage across the Kokoda Track.