[The first airstrip at Milne Bay was] probably the worst airstrip I've ever operated off in my life and [am] ever likely to.

Pilot Officer Bruce 'Buster' Brown, No. 75 Squadron RAAF. Read more about his account.

On 8 June 1942, work started on the first airfield, known as No. 1 Airstrip. Local Papuan labour was used to clear land. The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) oversaw this work.

On 11 July, Brigadier John Field assumed command of Milne Force. Milne Force consisted of the 7th and 18th Brigades, 2nd/5th Field Regiment, 9 Light Anti-aircraft Battery, 6 Heavy Anti-aircraft Battery, 101st Anti-Tank Battery, 24th Field Company.

Brigadier Field exercised operational control over all Allied air, land, and naval forces in the area. He reported directly to Blamey's Land Forces Headquarters in Brisbane, rather than New Guinea Force in Port Moresby.

On 22 July, 3 Kittyhawks from No. 76 Squadron RAAF arrived with additional aircraft arriving from No. 75 and 76 Squadrons on 25 July. The runway was often covered with water, causing aircraft to skid and become bogged. The solution was to lay the runway with Marston Matting, a pierced steel planking that allowed runways to be built on soggy ground. However, the matting often sank into the mud and the surface became greasy, making landing difficult.

Work then began on No. 2 Airstrip and No. 3 Airstrip with a Battalion of the US 43rd Engineers (less Company E) who started on 4 August.

That same day, four Japanese Zero fighters and a dive bomber attacked the airstrips with one Kittyhawk destroyed. A Kittyhawk from No. 76 Squadron RAAF shot down the dive bomber.

On 22 August, Major General Cyril Clowes took over command of Milne Force, which was brought under New Guinea Force control.

Malaria was endemic to Milne Bay and caused many problems for the troops. Initially, the Allied forces at Milne Bay were unprepared. Short sleeves were common, and they arrived without mosquito nets. The two companies of the 55th Infantry Battalion were so badly affected by malaria and other tropical disease that they were withdrawn and sent back to Port Moresby at the beginning of August.

By the end of August, there were approximately 7,500 Australians and 1,400 US Army personnel at Milne Bay. About 4,500 were infantry.

Milne Bay was such a strategic location the Japanese wanted to take control. Find out what happened when they landed marines at Milne Bay.

Papua New Guinea
July 1942
Image caption
RAAF members take a break during the clearing for an airstrip at Milne Bay.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 014813. Photo by Norman Brown.

Related Trails

The Milne Bay Remembrance Trail

5 Steps