From time to time, we'll be talking to great Australian authors about their local history and what inspired them to start researching and writing their stories.
This week we talk to Peter Williams, author of The Kokoda Campaign 1942: Myth and Reality. Peter is a researcher for the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal and is a military historian for the Darwin Military Museum. His new book combines narrative and detailed analysis, to re-evaluate the Kokoda campaign of 1942 and should be considered a must-read for anyone who is interested in Kokoda.
IHM. Q. What inspired you to start researching and writing your book on Kokoda?
- Peter: I wanted to write books on the most famous episodes in Australian military history. My first book was about Gallipoli. These days Kokoda comes second on the list but it wasn’t always so. When I first went to New Guinea in 1980, to visit Australian battlefields, I remember Kokoda was not foremost in my mind as a place to go.
- Peter: I went to Tokyo and spent a month in their military archives looking at Imperial Japanese Army documents from 1942. I don’t know of any other Kokoda author who has done that, which is possibly why other books on Kokoda have got much of the story wrong.
- Peter: I don’t think you can explain a military campaign, who won and why, without looking at the evidence from both armies. You wouldn’t try to explain the outcome of a game of cricket by only discussing the vice and virtues of one team.
- Peter: The usual explanation for the series of Australian defeats that occurred when the Australians were driven back along the Kokoda track, from July to September 1942, is that they were so greatly outnumbered by the Japanese no other outcome was likely. The main thing I discovered in the archives in Tokyo is that the Japanese did not outnumber the Australians at all. It’s hard to believe, as so many books have stressed the huge Japanese numerical superiority, but it is simply not true that they were in superior strength. So if that’s not the explanation for our series of defeats, what is?
- Peter: Australian veterans of New Guinea often told me, ‘You couldn’t see them in the jungle, the Japanese soldier was a master of camouflage’. Then I went to Japan and interviewed a dozen veterans there. I was surprised to hear many of them say exactly the same thing. ‘Those Australians were very good at hiding in the jungle, you couldn’t see them.’ In fact neither side had any special training in jungle warfare, I think it was rather the jungle itself. It was easy to hide in, but the men on both sides concluded that the enemy must be masters of jungle war.
- Peter: I still have not figured out why the Kokoda story is so popular now. When I was a kid Kokoda wasn’t a famous Australian battle. That has changed in the last 20 years. Now thousands of us walk the track every year.
- Peter: Be prepared to work hard for a long time. Hank Nelson, a wonderful historian who died in February, once told me ‘a page a day is a book a year’. He meant do not be discouraged, do not give up. Do a little every day, just keep plugging away.
- Peter: In my book title there are the words ‘myth’ and ‘reality’. If you write a history book that challenges what people have always believed about a well-known subject, then you get a bit of criticism from those who do not want to let go of the old version, the myth. I have had a few unpleasant emails from readers who prefer the myth and do not like the new evidence I have found about Kokoda. But that’s good in a way, when you get flak you know you are over the target.
Extract [Page 1] from The Kokoda Campaign 1942.Myth and Reality, Cambridge University Press, 2012 by Peter Williams
"This book is an examination of the Kokoda campaign – from the Japanese landing in Papua in July 1942 and their advance along the Kokoda Track, to their defeat at Oivi–Gorari in November. The Kokoda campaign is catching up with Gallipoli in popularity, as is apparent from the number of books on it that have appeared in the past twenty-odd years and the thousands of Australians who now walk the Kokoda Track each year. As the events of 1915 pass into distant memory, it is possible that Kokoda might come to rival Gallipoli as the representative Australian military experience. While there are positive aspects to this, as its popularity increases errors in the Kokoda story have a tendency to be repeated until they take on the outward appearance of fact. Other aspects of the campaign, some arising from Australian wartime propaganda, have not been subject to postwar investigation. These two strands combine to create the Kokoda myth. Recent popular accounts, concerned more with colour than precision, perpetuate the myth.
The core of the Kokoda myth is that during the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby the Australians were greatly outnumbered. Those in the front line were convinced of this, and their word has been accepted. Japanese veterans often say the same thing – that the Australians significantly outnumbered them. It may be that in jungle fighting, where the enemy is rarely seen, there is a tendency to imagine that he is in great strength. In truth, during the Japanese advance, the Australians were rarely outnumbered by their enemy. While Australia’s 39th Battalion and the Papuan Infantry Battalion faced superior numbers in the small July clashes, it was not as many as two to one. The forces engaged at Isurava, the first large action, have always been thought to have been at the very least three to one against the Australians and perhaps six to one. In fact the numbers were equal with about 2300 being engaged on either side. With the exception of the first Eora–Templeton’s Crossing fighting, where the Japanese did have almost twice as many troops as the Australians, the Australians fought the Japanese at one to one until Ioribaiwa in September, where it was the Australians who outnumbered the Japanese by two to one, yet the Australians were still defeated. During the Australian advance after Ioribaiwa they always maintained a great superiority of numbers over the Japanese.
Numbers are important in war. To have a good prospect of success the attacker should usually have more men than the defender. The firepower of modern weapons so advantage a defender that a three-to-one local superiority is said to be needed to be reasonably certain of success if all other factors are equal. A two-to-one advantage provides a lesser chance of success but will sometimes be enough, and one to one is usually not enough for the attacker to prevail. When numbers alone do not explain victory or defeat – and it is rarely as simple as that – we look to the quality of the troops, their weapons, morale and supply, and how well they were commanded. Each of these elements can powerfully increase fighting power or, to use terms not in use in 1942, they are force multipliers that enhance combat effectiveness. For example, if the attacker’s men were of higher quality than those of the defender, or if the attacker had much more artillery or was better supplied, then he might not need any superiority in numbers to win. According to the Kokoda myth, it was the large Japanese numerical superiority that enabled them to advance as far as they did towards Port Moresby. If that is not true then other reasons for the series of Australian defeats on the Kokoda Track between July and September 1942 would be required. One possibility is that the Japanese were qualitatively superior to the Australians.
A central fact of land warfare in the first year of the Japanese offensive in the Pacific from December 1941 is that, man for man, the Japanese proved to be better soldiers than those who opposed them. The proof is that up to the second half of 1942 the Japanese rarely had superior numbers engaged in land battles, yet they rarely lost one. They achieved their victories in Burma, the Dutch East Indies, during the Malayan campaign, in the final battle at Singapore and in the Philippines without a numerical advantage. Only when the Allies had a very considerable superiority, as at Milne Bay and Guadalcanal, were they able to defeat the Japanese. The Kokoda campaign fits this pattern.
It might not be too much to say that most issues of the campaign ought to be reappraised if it can be shown that the Japanese engaged in the battles along the Kokoda Track were many fewer than has been believed. This word engaged holds a clue because, while the Nankai Shitai was more than 16 000 strong, the number the Japanese actually committed to battle on the Kokoda Track, which runs from Kokoda south over the Owen Stanley Range towards Port Moresby, was much smaller. The problem for the myth is that of a 16 000-strong Japanese force, of which 7000 were fighting troops, no more than 3500 of these actually advanced along the Kokoda Track.
What has occurred in postwar Australian historiography might have something to do with the saying that the victors write the history. This is true as far as it goes, but much of what the victor later writes might not be accurate as it can arise out of his own wartime propaganda. The defeated too has wartime propaganda, but this is swept away postwar as it is immediately seen for what it usually is – falsehood. The victor’s propaganda is not subject to the same rigorous reassessment and has a chance to seep into later accounts and, over time, become entrenched there. Two examples of Australian wartime propaganda still read today, and which stress the Japanese numerical superiority, are George Johnston’s New Guinea Diary and Osmar White’s Green Armour, published in 1943 and 1945 respectively.
The attempt to debunk Kokoda myths is not intended to denigrate the Australians who fought on the Kokoda Track. Their bravery and fortitude is not in question. It is rather that the current interpretation of the campaign is invalid. The Kokoda Campaign 1942, myth and reality, is an attempt to set aside the myth of Kokoda and replace it with the reality and, as the evidence that undoes the myth comes mainly from Japanese sources, it follows that more than half the book concerns the Nankai Shitai. The unfortunate contribution of Australian popular military history to the strength of the Kokoda myth was discussed earlier, but the problem is broader than that. The Kokoda myth has arisen because there exists a gap in Australian historiography: a wide range of Japanese sources have not hitherto been examined, although Raymond Paull, Lex McAulay and Paul Ham have all made some effort to do so. The result is a lack of balance in our understanding of the Kokoda campaign, a natural outcome, for if we try to explain an historical event involving two belligerents using sources from only one of them, then we should hardly expect to get it right".