When the Japanese war machine swept through South-East Asia in early 1942, it was inevitable that conflict would reach Australian territory on the island of New Guinea. The ultimate Japanese target was Port Moresby. Conquering the capital would sever communication between Australia and her American ally and allow Japanese air power to threaten Australia's northern cities.
When a seaborne invasion was thwarted at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Nankai Shitai landed in Papua on 21 July and launched an overland attack. Having captured the village of Kokoda with its vital airstrip, the Japanese headed for Port Moresby, traversing the treacherous Kokoda Trail that winds across the mighty Owen Stanley Range.
The Australian Army was ill prepared to confront the Japanese. Poorly equipped, undertrained, and unaccustomed to jungle warfare, the untested militia battalions were the first to face the battle-hardened invading forces. Later, when veteran AIF brigades were rushed forward to bolster the militia, they also fell in the path of the Japanese onslaught.
But the over-extension of supply lines and disaster on Guadalcanal eventually cruelled Japanese aspirations and the Kokoda campaign became a bloody and protracted struggle as the Australian troops fought to drive the Japanese off the Owen Stanleys and out of Papua.
While the front-line troops were engaged in a bitter fight for survival, a power struggle erupted at the top of the Allied command hierarchy resulting in a series of sackings, the competing ambitions of the Allied commanders clouding their judgement at a critical time.
It was under these conditions, against a determined enemy and on one of the harshest battlefields on earth, that the Australian forces began to learn the crucial lessons that would be needed to break the back of the Japanese Army in New Guinea.
Nicholas Anderson is an historian at the Australian Army History Unit. He holds degrees in Arts and Law from the University of Canberra. In 2012, some 70 years after the Kokoda campaign, he accompanied three recipients of the Chief of Army s I m an Australian Soldier scholarship to Papua New Guinea as an historical guide. The group visited the beachheads on the north coast and then trekked the Kokoda Trail, commemorating Anzac Day at a dawn service at Isurava.