Teaching resources

Following the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 and the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, the Japanese planned to occupy Port Moresby in what was then the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea. Some saw this as a step in preparation for invading Australia but for the Japanese it was probably a defensive measure. They could use it as a base to defend the southernmost parts of their empire and as a port to service their ships. Occupying Port Moresby would also prevent it being used by the United States and Australian forces.

The fighting that took place in New Guinea in 1942 was the most important that Australian soldiers have ever been involved in. For the only time in our history, Australians were defending their own country and fighting off a direct threat against their homes and loved ones. This time they were not fighting somebody else's war in a distant land. The fighting that took place in New Guinea, an Australian territory since 1920, along what became known as the Kokoda Track, was some of the toughest Australian soldiers have ever experienced.

Success on the Kokoda Track in 1942 saved Australia from a possible invasion and greatly assisted the Allied effort to push the Japanese back. The Kokoda campaign marked the moment when the war had clearly turned against the Japanese in favour of the Allies.

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Source 7 - A map of northern Australia, New Guinea and Papua showing areas under Japanese control and the three Japanese attempts to seize Port Moresby

The Japanese first attempted to seize Port Moresby by a sea and air attack but were defeated in the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942 and the Battle of Midway in early June. However, they did not give up their goal and decided instead to launch a land attack, invading New Guinea in the north and planning to march south to Port Moresby.

Kokoda was just a small village about half-way across New Guinea (see source 7) but it eventually gave its name to the whole campaign. Kokoda was of strategic importance for two reasons:

  • It was an area of relatively flat land, where an airstrip could be built.
  • Being near the northern edge of the mountain range it was thought that this could be defended. If the Australians were forced back, the Japanese would have to attack them from below.

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Source 8 - A map showing some significant places on the Kokoda Trail, and a cross-section showing the mountainous terrain

However, as sources 8 and 9 demonstrate, this part of Papua New Guinea provided some of the toughest terrain in the world in which to fight.

  • The trail consisted of a variety of peaks — some up to 2000 metres high — and valleys to cross.
  • You had to fight your way through dense rainforest.
  • There were hot, humid conditions in the valleys and freezing nights on the mountain tops.
  • Malaria, dysentery and other tropical diseases flourished in these conditions.

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Source 9 - A photograph of the Golden Stairs. This was the initial climb from Owers’ Corner up to Imita Ridge. Army engineers had cut out 3000 steps.

Defending New Guinea

Australia was ill-equipped to defend Papua New Guinea. Its trained soldiers had either been fighting for over two years in Africa or the Middle East or were prisoners of war following the fall of Singapore. The military leaders instead had to form a new military force by gathering a group of conscripts and volunteers from within Australia. These young men were poorly equipped and poorly trained. There were no preparations for tropical warfare, and even their khaki uniforms were completely unsuited to tropical conditions, not providing any camouflage in the tropical rainforests. On top of this, they were thrown against a highly trained and determined enemy who for years had known only victory.

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Source 10 - An Australian soldier describes conditions on the Kokoda Trail

June 1942
About 400 members of the 39th Division of the Australian militia were sent just north of the Owen Stanley Ranges to secure the airfield at Kokoda. The militia were not professional soldiers. But part of a reserve used for home defence work. Their average age was eighteen and a half. They were dismissively referred to as 'chocos' or 'chocolate soldiers' because it was believed they would melt in the heat of battle when faced with any real enemy.

Japanese forces of about 6000 landed at Gona on the coast (see map, source 8) on 21 July and advanced towards Kokoda. They intended advancing across the Owen Stanleys and taking Port Moresby in about two weeks. This was a distance of about 200 km, but the terrain was extremely tough - high mountains and thick jungle.
  • Over the next few weeks, the Australian militia was pitted against what was arguably the toughest and best trained army in the world
  • Inexperienced, poorly-supplied, disease-ridden and hungry, these young Australian militia men were all that stood between the Japanese and Port Moresby.

The first battle at Kokoda took place on 29 July. The Australians, who numbered around 1800, withdrew with only a few casualties, but on 8 August they launched a new attack on Kokoda and recaptured it. However, after two days of bitter fighting, the Japanese again forced the Australians back, this time to Isurava (see source 8).


The Japanese were able to push the Australians aback along the track. The airfield was captured on 11 August. They attacked at Isurava (See below) and Alola (See map Source 8). By now the men of the militia were in a terrible state
  • It was now that they were replaced by AIF men from the 9th Division who had returned from the Middle East
  • The Australians were forced back to Menari (See map Source 8) as 7000 Japanese pressed forward.
  • The Australian forces then moved back to Ioribalwa and established a new defensive position. They then move further back to Imita Ridge
While this was happening other Australian units were fighting the Japanese in the east of the island at Milne Bay

Milne Bay
During 1942 Australian and American forces had set up a new outpost at Milne Bay. The site was a narrow, swampy coastal strip of land on the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. American engineers constructed three airstrips and on 25 August two RAAF Kittyhawk squadrons arrived.

Source 11 – A photograph of conditions for Australian soldiers in Milne Bay in 1942. Milne Bay was best known for its mud and mosquitos

Early the next morning the Japanese invaded under the cover of darkness and, despite fierce opposition by Allied forces, they were able to land and bring in heavy equipment such as tanks. Australian and United States forces continued attacking the Japanese and just a week later, on 3 September, the Japanese began to withdraw. This was Japan's first land defeat of World War II.
For further reading on Milne Bay:


At the same time that the Japanese forces were landing at Milne Bay, the Japanese forces which had occupied Kokoda now moved south to attack Isurava (see source 8).

The Japanese attacked on 26 August 1942. This attack was launched on the same day that the Australian soldiers at Isurava had been reinforced by soldiers from the AIF 21st Brigade. These new soldiers were seasoned troops who had fought in the Middle East, returned to Australia, and were now redeployed in the Kokoda campaign.

The battle at Isurava lasted four days. About 1800 Australians were confronted by 6000 Japanese. On the last day of fighting a 24-year-old soldier, Bruce Kingsbury, was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading a counterattack against a break in the Australian line. It was the first Victorian Cross awarded on Australian soil. (Papua was at this time Australian territory.) Again, however, the Australians were eventually forced back.

For Further Reading on Isurava:

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Source 12 - Extract from the translation of a Japanese soldier's diary, believed to be that of Lieutenant Noda Hidetaka, probably of the 3rd Battalion, 144th Japanese Infantry

Despite strong opposition from the Australian forces, the Japanese kept advancing towards Port Moresby and, three weeks later, on 16 September, they had reached Ioribaiwa (see source 5.21). From here the Japanese could see the lights of Port Moresby. Being close to Port Moresby, they were able to get reinforcements and artillery guns.

However, the fighting had been at great cost to them. Of the 6000 troops in the initial invasion, over 1000 had been killed. Another 3000 were wounded or were too ill to fight. The Japanese were also now suffering from long supplies lines, lack of food and disease.

On the Australian side, reinforcements were beginning to arrive and thing began to move in favour of the Australians. Gradually, they slowly pushed the Japanese back along the track in some of the toughest fighting in the war in horrendous conditions

The Japanese were ordered by their superiors to withdraw, but even in their withdrawal they continued to fight valiantly.


On 2 November, the Australians were back in Kokoda. On 16 November Australian and American forces were attacking the Japanese at Buna and Gona (See map Source 8).


On 1 December, Japan was forced to retreat and Gona fell to the Allies

Janurary 1943

On 2 January the Allies captured Buna.

For Further reading:


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The conditions that the Australian Servicemen had to endure were many and varied:

  • The terrain - they had traverse over the Owen Stanly ranges through jungle and terrain that was rugged and steep and often muddy
  • The weather - they were situated in hot and wet tropics. They were also in high altitudes where it was very cold at night. Heavy rains turned the ground to mud
  • Insects - flies, leeches and malaria carrying mosquitos
  • Diseases - Malaria, dysentry, tropical diseases, wounds becoming easily infected
  • Low supplies - of food and clean water led to malnutrition and dysentry
  • Ill equipped - Khaki uniforms made it easy for the Japanese to pick Australians out against the dark green jungle, footwear unsuitable to the terrain, Clothing and footwear did not protect from the elements
  • Inexperienced - soldiers were young and under trained

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The 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels'
Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels is name given to the caring native carriers of Papua New Guinea. Six hundred Australian lives were lost during the campaign but without the help of the "Fuzzy Wuzzies" the loss would have been much greater.

Not only did they carry the wounded out but they also carried the ammunition, food and other supplies in. With the average load weighing over 40 kgs and often under heavy fire from the Japanese, the Fuzzy Wuzzies battled the terrain and the enemy as they painstakingly carried the wounded over the tough terrain.

The great majority of the 18,000 New Guineans who participated in the campaign did so as carriers of supplies for the Allies, though 800 men from the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Royal Papuan Constabulary fought against the Japanese in 1942.

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The Significance of the Campaign

The Kokoda campaign represents the first time in the nation's history that its security was directly threatened. Papua New Guinea was at the time an Australian territory. Although it has since become accepted that an invasion of Australia was not possible, or even planned by the Japanese, there was a very real perception at the time in Australia that this threat was real and imminent. As such the Kokoda campaign has come to be viewed by some—albeit perhaps erroneously—as the battle that "saved Australia".

As a result, within the collective Australian psyche, the servicemen in the campaign were seen to embody to characteristics and qualities of the Australian digger much like those of the Anzac legend from World War I. These were: Bravery, Mateship, Resilience and Resourcefulness in tough conditions. The Battle of Isurava has been described by one historian as "Australia's Thermopylae". [Thermopylae is the name of the battle in the movie ‘300’ which is based on an historical event]

Success on the Kokoda Track in 1942 greatly assisted the Allied effort to push the Japanese back. The Kokoda campaign marked the moment when the war had clearly turned against the Japanese in favour of the Allies!

Can You Answer?

1. When did the Kokoda Campaign take place? _

2. How long did the campaign last? ­­­­­­­­­­­­_

3. From Source 7 and the text, describe the three attempts the Japanese made to seize Port Moresby, and give the dates of each attempt.

4. Using Source 8 and the text, explain why control of Kokoda was so important to the war effort.

5. Identify two reasons for the shortage of experienced troops at the start of the New Guinea campaign.

6. What initial difficulties were faced by the Australians in the campaign?

7. What initial advantages did the Japanese have?

8. Why did the Japanese eventually feel it was necessary to withdraw?

9. From the text find the date for each of the following key events in the Papua New Guinea campaign. Draw a timeline from May to November 1942 and enter these events on the timeline.

  • Battle of the Coral Sea
  • First Australian force arrives to defend Kokoda
  • Initial Japanese attack on Kokoda
  • Japanese attack Milne Bay
  • Japanese begin withdrawal from Milne Bay
  • Japanese advance to Isurava
  • Japanese had reached Isurava
  • Japanese begin withdrawal from Isurava
  • Kokoda recaptured by Australians

10. Using the Sources and the text, identify problems faced by those fighting along the Kokoda Trail due to the conditions.

Cloze activity

Australia entered World War II in September to loyally support _. Throughout 1941–42, Australian troops fought in North _, and the island of _. They were involved in the lengthy siege of the port city of and fought alongside British troops at the Battle of _ in October 1942. In December , the Japanese bombed the US base of and then swept through South East Asia. On _, 1942 the Japanese captured the British naval base of _. On _, Japanese planes attacked Australia for the first time when they bombed _. Three months later, Japanese submarines attacked . Britain Prime Minister, _ and Australian Prime Minister _ disagreed about where AIF troops should fight. They eventually returned to Australia and then took over from the who were fighting against the Japanese along the _ Track in New Guinea. Many Australian soldiers spent the war in POW camps such as or having to do forced labour, such as on the Railway. The Japanese totally ignored the rules of the _ Convention and mistreated their prisoners. The war eventually came to an end in and US General __ took the formal surrender of the Japanese on 2 September.

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