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The Battle for Isurava

Fighting on the Kokoda Track in the heart of the Owen Stanleys


David W Cameron

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, March 2022

Paperback   364pp   RRP $32.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, April 2023


This work follows Cameron’s The Battles for Kokoda Plateau [Allen & Unwin, 2020]. in July 1942, the Australian militiamen of B Company, 39th Battalion (Maroubra Force), outnumbered by three to one, had spent four weeks fighting a delaying action on the Plateau. This and the Kokoda airstrip were captured by the Japanese on 11th August. Cameron provides the detail of the successive battles at Deniki, Isurava, and Eora Creek as the Australians withdrew southwards along the Kokoda Track.

On 8th August B Company launched a counterattack at Kokoda, but outnumbered and short of ammunition, fell back to Deniki after two days of fighting. By 13th August B Company were reinforced by the arrival of the remainder of their (39th) battalion which had moved up the Kokoda Track. The Japanese launched their first attack on Deniki on 13th August, and early the next morning the decision was made for the 39th to withdraw to Isurava before the Japanese by-passed them – leaving the route to the south open.

A hastily-formed and untrained militia 53rd Bn was shipped to Port Moresby, where they were used as wharf labourers instead of doing weapon and tactics training, before heading north on the 11th and 12th of August and deploying at Aloli (approximately 10km south of Deniki) on 21st. Their lack of training and cohesiveness saw virtually no worthwhile contribution from the 53rd whilst in theatre. Two Western Desert-hardened 2nd AIF battalions – the 2/14th and 2/16th, (both leaving their mortars in defence of Port Moresby!) joined the battle-weary 39th Bn on 26th August. Concurrently the Headquarters 30th Brigade moved into Aloli on 26th August having been ordered ‘to retake Kokoda, with the assistance of 39th Bn if necessary’!

For the two months Maroubra Force struggled with lack of communication and support from Blamey’s Australian Headquarters. [In Melbourne on 10th August 1942, when discussing the fighting around Kokoda, General Thomas Blamey, the Commander of Allied Land Forces in the South West Pacific Area, said that not much was happening there and ‘it was not of great importance’! – Cameron, David W, The Battles for Kokoda Plateau, Allen & Unwin, 2020]. Resupply of food, equipment, weapons and ammunition were greatly hampered by poor flying conditions, air drops (without parachutes) and the destruction of transport aircraft at Port Moresby by a Japanese bombing raid on 16th August. The Allies had no heavy weapons to match the Japanese heavy machine guns, mortars and a mountain gun. Frequently troops of both sides lost contact with their colleagues and had incredible struggles to return to their units.

There was a lull in Japanese attacks following the loss of Deniki. They too were building up their troop strength and also faced a logistics challenge. The 2/14th Bn bolstered the perimeter at Isurava on 26th August as the Japanese launched their attack. The Australians continued to valiantly defend their position against constant attack, during which on the 29th of August, Private Bruce Kingsbury (2/14th Bn) was to be awarded Australia’s first Victoria Cross in the Pacific theatre. By the next day the two battalions had withdrawn south to the Isurava Rest House but were forced the same day to move back to Aloli. The 2/16th Bn at Abuari then supported the withdrawal of 39th and 2/14th battalions to Eora Creek.

During the following five days Maroubra Force withdrew after heavy Japanese pressure. The remnants of the 39th Bn arrived back at Owers Corner on 9th September (from where they were able to be moved by vehicle back to Port Moresby).

Cameron has intertwined the diaries and letters of the military members involved, as well as  those of their Japanese opponents. Present were three Australian journalists – Damien Parer, Osmar White and Chester Wilmot – who accompanied the battalions north to Isurava. Service personal mentioned or quoted have all been identified by age, occupation and hometown.

The multiple maps provided are ample for the reader to grasp the full detail of the action during the memorable battles that took place. There are high quality photographs, a very-detailed Bibliography, and 25 pages of Endnotes. A comprehensive Index is included.

This is a highly readable account of the battle that has been described as Australia’s Thermopylae.



[The third work in this series by Cameron - Retaking Kokoda: The Battle for Templeton’s Crossing, Eora Creek and the Oivi-Gorari positions, Big Sky Publishing, November 2022, will be reviewed in due course.]



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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