It was a spectacular and dramatic assault, and a brave one... Behind the tanks went the fresh and jaunty Aussie veterans, tall, mustached, erect, with their blazing Tommy-guns swinging before them. Concealed Japanese positions – which were even more formidable than our patrols had indicated – burst into flame. There was the greasy smell of tracer fire ... and heavy machine-gun fire from barricades and entrenchments. Steadily tanks and infantrymen advanced through the spare, high coconut trees, seemingly impervious to the heavy opposition.

- General Robert Eichelberger on the attacks at Buna, 1942. Read more about his experience.

Once the Allies secured Kokoda in November 1942, fighting moved to the Beachheads.

Japanese forces retreated to three key positions along a 25 km stretch of the north coast of Papua at:

Australian troop numbers were low. They were exhausted after fighting their way across the mountains. The US soldiers who joined them had no combat experience and no training in jungle warfare.

Allied commanders underestimated the strength and condition of Japanese forces at the Beachheads. The 11,000 Japanese there were well-armed. They held strong defensive positions with effective, well-concealed bunkers by trenches.

Tropical heat, humidity and tidal swamps made the Allies' task even more difficult. Tropical diseases were common and took more casualties than the fighting itself. The movement and transport of supplies and reinforcements were challenging in the jungle.

Despite these difficulties, US General Douglas MacArthur shared his high expectations with Lieutenant General Robert Eichelberger:

I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies – anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence, the Japs might land reinforcements any night. I want you to take Buna or not come back alive.

From 19 to 20 November 1942, US forces launched attacks at Buna. Australian forces launched attacks at Gona. Together, both countries attacked Sanananda. On all three fronts, the Allied forces suffered high casualties and made little progress. The operation evolved into a siege. It was difficult for Japanese defenders to break from their positions and escape, or easily bring in reinforcements.

The Allies rushed to build airfields. They flew in reinforcements and supplies from Port Moresby. Allied aircraft and artillery bombed and shelled Japanese positions. The Allies experienced heavy losses in the attacks. At Buna, US forces struggled against the Japanese until Australian reinforcements arrived. It took the combined force six days, with high casualties, to cut through the defences the Japanese had held for six weeks. The Allies received support from artillery and tanks, and in the air.

Gona was challenging, too. The Australian 25th Brigade attempted a sudden, bold attack in November 1942. The attack stalled. The 25th Brigade fought against the Japanese for more than a week with heavy losses until they were relieved by the 21st Brigade. Now able to attack Gona from two sides, the Australians captured Gona on 9 December 1942.

Fighting at Sanananda dragged into January 1943. It fell to the Allies, ending the campaign in Papua, on 22 January 1943.

The Battle of the Beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda saw the passing of the perceived threat to Australia. 1942 became known as one of the most significant years in Australia's wartime history.

Learn more about Buna and what happened at this beachhead.

Papua New Guinea
19 November 1942 to 22 January 1943
Image caption
General view of Port Moresby harbour showing shipping facilities and a portion of the township, July 1942.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. Artist: Geoffrey Mainwaring, 1962, oil on canvas, 174.5 cm x 312.5 cm x 10.7 cm, ART27547.
Further reading list

Related Trails

The Beachheads

11 Steps