Battle of Wau

29 JANUARY – 6 FEBRUARY 1943

Between 1943 and 1945 the largest series of interconnected operations ever undertaken by the Australian military was fought in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea at Wau, Salamaua–Lae, the Finisterre Range, Huon Peninsula and Aitape–Wewak.

Japan’s failure to capture Port Moresby during the Kokoda Campaign (21 July – November 1942) and the loss of their north Papuan beachhead garrisons at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943, elevated the importance of their mainland bases at Lae and Salamaua. Both were reinforced with troop transfers from the principle Japanese fortress, Rabaul on the island of New Britain.

In January 1943, a brigade-sized enemy task force left Salamaua and crossed the Owen Stanley Range, via the Black Cat Track, to attack an Australian force based at Wau. Australian commandos stationed at Wau had been harassing the Salamaua garrison since June 1942. The Japanese aimed to eliminate the threat.

Decoded communications, however, forewarned Australian commanders of the attack and Japanese troops undertaking the arduous trek found that Wau’s small garrison, Kanga Force, had been substantially reinforced by air.

The momentum of the Japanese advance was checked in a series of skirmishes with Victorian troops of the 17th Infantry Brigade. By 30 January 1943, Kanga Force had grown large enough to counterattack.

The Japanese tried to cut off the stream of Allied air transports reinforcing Wau by bombing its airstrip. A decisive air battle fought on 6 February saw American pilots down 24 enemy aircraft. This ended all enemy hopes of dislodging Kanga Force. The Japanese fell back towards Mubo.

Kanga Force suffered 349 casualties at Wau but Australian troops counted 753 Japanese dead.


-Neil Sharkey

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