Continuing the World War Two theme, not many people know that the last major land battle in the Pacific in World War 2 took place in Borneo Indonesia. The following is a brief description of that battle. Once again it is written from an Australian perspective as Indonesian records are virtually non existent and with the passage of time even the oral history has faded away. I can tell you that the Dayak tribes of the region were valuable allies to the troops and took much delight in relieving wayward Japanese Soldiers of their heads.
Often this was done in exchange for “gilders” although one old veteran told me “You had to check each and every head as the cheeky buggers kept slipping heads of migrants from other islands that had been brought to Borneo first by the Dutch and later the Japanese as indentured workers”
Over seventy years ago, Australian troops landed at Balikpapan, Borneo, this was the site of the last major ground operation of World War II. It was one of the most controversial operations of the war because many Australian military commanders considered it strategically unsound.
BALIKPAPAN, on the east coast of Borneo, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of 1945. It was fought by troops of the 7th Division, whose three brigades were together on operations for the first time in the war.
This formation was commanded by Major General E.J. “Teddy” Milford, a regular soldier and Duntroon graduate who had served with artillery units during World War 1.
Milford’s three brigade commanders _ Fred Chilton, Ivan Dougherty and Ken Eather were all citizen soldiers who had commanded battalions.
Chilton was a solicitor, Dougherty a school teacher, and Eather a dental mechanic.
Like other operations in Borneo, the capture of Balikpapan was largely unnecessary. It had been in the planning stages for some months, although General Sir Thomas Blamey had suggested abandoning in May, 1945.
According to official historian Gavin Long: “Balikpapan’s only strategic value would be as a base from which to launch an expedition against Java, which was a purely political objective since it would not matter militarily whether that part of Japan’s crumbling empire was lost or held.”
In June, it was estimated that the Japanese had about 3,900 troops at Balikpapan, plus another 1,100 Japanese and Formosan (Formosa is now Taiwan) workers. At Samarinda, further north, there were another 1,500 Japanese troops.
Balikpapan had a port with seven piers, an oil refinery and a large number of warehouses. The town itself was built around the eastern headland of Balikpapan Bay; the coastal plain was narrow. On the hills which rose steeply from this plain were two airfields.
Heavy timber obstacles embedded offshore studded the likely landing beaches; ashore the Japanese had prepared concrete strongpoints and bunkers and had at least 112 artillery pieces.
Milford had about 21,000 troops in his division. As well, he had massive naval and air support.
The preliminary operations started on June 15, when a naval covering force arrived. As the minesweepers worked, four American cruisers, two Australian (the Shropshire and the Hobart) and 13 destroyers started a bombardment of the Japanese batteries. The ships fired 23,000 shells at targets ashore over the next 15 days.
From June 26, underwater demolition teams blew gaps in the offshore obstacles; on the same day troops of the 7th Division left Morotai in a convoy of more than 100 ships.
Bill Spencer was in the Queensland 2/9th Battalion aboard the landing ship Kanimbla. He recalled that General Sir Thomas
Blamey was on board, moving from deck to deck speaking with the Diggers. Blamey addressed the troops from the quarter deck, telling them their fate would be decided in Washington and London.
“It may well be that some of you with long-term service will be given a spell, a spell which you have earned. I know the 2/9th will want to be in the thick of it.”
To which a Digger retorted: “Pigs arse!”
When Blamey finished his speech, the same Digger called out: “Aren’t you coming with us?”
According to Spencer, the interjections were “spot on”.
Milford decided that, because of the tremendous air and naval support, he would land his brigades at Klandasan, the very heart of the Japanese defences. This, he considered, would be more economical in the long run than landing in a less strongly held area and fighting his way along to the key objective.
On the morning of July 1, 1945, two brigades landed on a 1,800-metre stretch of beach, the 18th on the left and the 21st on the right. The 18th Brigade was to secure the beachhead to a depth of about 1km, and advance north and north-west. The 21st Brigade’s job was to secure a covering position about 800 metres deep and then to advance north and east along the coast. One of 18th Brigade’s battalions, the 2/10th, was ordered to capture a feature named Parramatta, which overlooked the beach and had to be taken before any build-up of troops could begin.
It was a Japanese fortress, with tunnels connecting strongpoints and bunkers. The 2/10th was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Daly, a regular officer, who would end his career as army chief of staff. Daly had support of the guns of one cruiser, a battery of field artillery and Australian tanks. He planned accordingly, to use this firepower in his attack.
But as Daly prepared to attack, he discovered the naval fire and field artillery were unavailable and the tanks were bogged on the beach. He pressed on; hoping speed of the attack would stop the Japanese from reorganising.
One company took a key piece of terrain just short of the Parramatta feature but lost – killed or wounded – nearly half the men in the forward platoon. About 11.40am on that day, the tanks arrived and the field artillery was in action. By 2.12pm, Daly’s men and six tanks secured Parramatta. On the second day, the 2/14th Battalion, prominent at Kokoda in 1942, swept along the coast without opposition – unlike their attack on the Japanese stronghold overlooking an airfield at Manggar. A navy gunnery officer in radio communication with the warships climbed a rickety 30-metre airfield control tower to direct the bombardment.
After two weeks of fighting, nearly 1,800 Japanese were dead and 63 taken prisoner.
Australian casualties were 229 killed and 634 wounded.
Queenslanders of the 25th Brigade took the heaviest losses in close country, where the heavy weapons were of less use than around Balikpapan itself.