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WE Smith 1939 - Central Station, Sydney.WES, Blamey and Eichelberger, 1943





Photos

First:
Brig.Walter Smith outside Central Railway Station, Sydney, in 1939.
Second: Brig. Smith (standing with hands on hips) with Australia's top soldier, General Blamey (stooping) and US commander on the ground in the Gona-Buna-Sanananda area of north-east Papua in early 1943, Lieutenant General Eichelberger (right, rear). They are examining a captured Japanese artillery sight (Australian War Memorial collection). The far right image shows that Brig. Smith was actually in the Gona area in early 1943. The Australian Government official history of the New Guinea Campaign doesn't mention this and in fact doesn't mention his name in relation to the New Guinea Campaign (see official_history).

Command in the New Guinea Campaign

The official Australian history of the New Guinea Campaign, is Dudley McCarthy's 1958, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series I (Army), Vol. V, South-West Pacific Area First Year: Kokoda to Wau, published by the: Australian War Memorial (The Australian Government's war archive and memorial department) in 1962.

In the Battle of the Coral Sea from 4 to 7 May 1942, the Japanese maritime invasion fleet steaming for Port Moresby was turned back (thanks mainly to two US aircraft carriers that were coincidentally out of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 when Japan attacked America). It was then apparent that the Japanese would attack Port Moresby by land from beachheads in the Gona, Buna, Sanananda area on the north-east coast of Papua. This meant an attack along the Kokoda Track over the Owen Stanley Range.

Brig. Smith commanded the 14th Brigade, the first force sent to Port Moresby and the Kokoda Track after the Battle of the Coral Sea. He was on active service in New Guinea from May 1942 till February 1943 — the full period of the New Guinea Campaign to expel the Japanese from their beachheads in the Buna, Gona, Sanananda areas of the north-east coast. He commanded the 14th Brigade as its Brigadier from 23 October 1939 to 18 March 1943, a period of 3˝ years. His Officer's Record of Service, now available on-line at the Australian War Memorial Web site, says:

23.10.39 To comd. 14 Inf. Bde.
18.3.43 Relq commd. of 14 Inf Bde & is trans to Reserve of Officers in Hon Rank of Brig

Given that the Japanese maritime "defeat" in the Battle of the Coral Sea was the start of the New Guinea land campaign, Brig. Smith led the first force deployed in the land campaign, Australia's most important and perilous military campaign since European invasion in the late 1700s.

Smith as a captain is mentioned in the official Australian history of World War I in both Volume III and in Volume VI, and he is mentioned in Sir John Monash's The Australian Victories in France in 1918. However, in World War II his name is absent from the official Australian history of the New Guinea Campaign. So why doesn't the official Government history of the New Guinea Campaign mention Brig. Walter Smith's name?

The official Australian Government history

The answer, or what seems to be the answer, can be found from the official Government history. The apparent answer can be seen from the History's comments on the 14th Brigade:

...the inexperienced and poorly trained 14th Brigade was chosen... (page 141

And:

...the inexperienced 14th Brigade was sent forward... (page 112)

Also in Peter Brune's popular, Those Ragged Bloody Heroes (page 14):

The Army reinforced Port Moresby with a poorly trained and ill-led 14th Brigade...

The Official History adds:

This is no reflection on their courage [the courage of the men of the 14th Brigade], but units contained a large number of young men not yet properly developed or trained. (page 226)

According to the Official History, then, the Brigade suffered a failure of leadership manifest in poor training. Author Raymond Paul in his 1958, Retreat From Kokoda: The Australian Campaign in New guinea 1942, quotes Lieut. General Rowell (page 265):

Had ... the 14th Brigade been sufficiently well trained ... there is no doubt that the enemy would have been prevented from penetrating the Owen Stanley Range.

Though this claim now seems absurd (the Japanese had superior numbers and greater battle hardening) it must be taken as reflecting a deep criticism of the leadership of the 14th Brigade.

From what the Official History has said so far (quoted above) it can be understood that the Official History did not name the commander of the 14th Brigade because he had so badly failed to properly train his men for Australia's most important military campaign. But to clear up any uncertainty about whether the failure lay with the men of the Brigade or with its commander, the History then says:

Lieut-Colonel Matthews ... [became] temporary commander of the 14th Brigade... as the month [January 1943] went on they [elements of the 14th Brigade] became almost casual in their killing - as an entry on the 26th by Colonel Matthews in his diary indicates: ... "We got 'em Sir! Six killed and two prisoners (pages 512 and 526)

Thus, when Brig. Smith is replaced on the ground the 14th Brigade performs admirably. The failure, then, can only be with the commander.

The men themselves

The 14th Brigade comprised the 3rd Battalion, 36th Battalion and 55th/53rd Battalion. Several members of the 14th Brigade, Ken Laycock, Frank Budden, Stan Brigg, and Colin Kennedy, later wrote books about their time with the14th Brigade in New Guinea during the New Guinea Campaign. Collin Kennedy (3rd Battalion) in his 1992 book, Port Moresby to Gona Beach: 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion 1942, says:

It was the stiff training ... at Greta which helped "B" company through its initial ordeal [in New Guinea.

Stan and Les Brigg (36th Battalion) in their 1967 book, The 36th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939 - 1945: The Story of an Australian Infantry Battalion and its part in the War Against Japan, page 8, say:

This period of training [in Australia] saw the foundation laid for a sound unit.

Of the four Brigade members who later published books about the 14th Brigade in the New Guinea Campaign, Ken Laycock, Frank Budden, Stan Brigg, and Colin Kennedy, only Laycock criticised the training regime. Laycock said the training was too tough. Brig. Smith's training program was considered adequate for use elsewhere in the Australian Army. On 7 December 1942, former 14th Brigade officer Paul Williams wrote to Smith and said:

...Brig. A. A. Brackpool ... remarked that the system of training as laid down by the 14 Bde was what he was [using]... [more]

Historian David Horner in his 1978 book, Crisis of Command: Australian Generalship and the Japanese Threat 1939-1943, criticizes Australia's top Army brass for bad decision-making and poor conduct in the New Guinea Campaign. About the 14th Brigade's training program, Horner says (page 88):

...while his [Brig. Smith's] troops were training in the Hexham area [west of Sydney] he worked them fifteen hours a day for weeks...

Frank Budden (55th/53rd Battalion) in his 1973 book, That Mob!: The Story of the 55th/53rd Australian Infantry Battalion, expresses a view on page 38 found in accounts of other authors:

A marked feature of the whole campaign was the failure of the higher commanders to appreciate the conditions of the forward areas and their willingness to throw all the blame onto front line troops.

Regarding training, the accounts of the men themselves are actually the opposite of the statements in the Official Australian Government history. They can't both be true. So who is lying — and why?

The Australian Government history is lying. During the New Guinea Campaign, Brig. Smith offended the top military hierarchy so deeply that they used the Official History to destroy his military reputation and career. The Official Historian (or those who advised him) couldn't give the real reason for the destruction because it was such a damning indictment of the top military structure. The Army decision was to use the lie that Smith's training of his men had been unacceptably poor. So what really happened?

Port Moresby early 1942

At the time the 14th Brigade embarked from Sydney for Port Moresby on 17 May 1942, Port Moresby was under the military administration of Australian Maj. Gen. Basil Morris commanding 30th Brigade militia troops which first arrived at Port Moresby in January 1942.

Anglican Bishop of New Guinea from 1936 to 1962, Philip Strong, in his book, The New Guinea Diaries of Philip Strong 1936-1945, for 15 April 1942 at Port Moresby says:

looters had been in the Rectory again, and [it was] in a worse mess than ever ... the RC [Roman Catholic] Church has also been looted, and the presbytery and Convent. ... [I] had morning tea at Maj. Gen. Morris's] house ... and he said with bowed head, 'I am sorry...'" (p99)


George Johnston in his book, War Diary 1942, Collins, published in 1984, records for Monday 16 February 1942:

Looting is still rife in the town ... In every store fittings have been pulled down and smashed and thousands of pounds worth of goods trampled underfoot. Almost every civilian house has been looted and all sorts of valuables taken." (p 23)


Philip Strong says for 1 April 1942:

Went to the Rectory, the condition of which almost makes one weep. The whole place had been ransacked... Apparently all houses in Port Moresby are the same and all this looting has been done by the military." (p 96)


The troops were sending much of their booty back home to Australia by the Australian postal service. An official inquiry was held into the looting and its findings kept secret.

14th Brigade's arrival in Port Moresby May 1942
In his first letter home after arriving at Port Moresby in May 1942, Walter Smith under wartime censorship says:

...25 May 1942
Sunday
My dear Glad

...We’re settling down rapidly, mainly in the mud, in our new surroundings which are totally different to what we expected. My word, our people down South want to take a running jump at themselves ...


This comment related to the briefing provided in Sydney by Army Intelligence at Victoria Barracks shortly before the Brigade departed Sydney for Port Moresby. Then he said:

have been kept very busy since landing ... [B]y the time I finish climbing over the tangled mass of hills and mountain peeks in this district I'll have developed into some thing in the nature of a mountain goat.


Brig. Smith says in notes made shortly after war's end (see file note for the original handwritten sheets):

In Moresby I found things far different to what I'd expected, and immediately on landing found myself at cross purposes with the Military administration. This was a bad and most unfortunate situation. I had to decide quickly whether to knuckle down and be given the run-a-round, or stand firm and remain master of my own soul.

Needless to say, I decided to stand firm and adopted a really tough attitude. For some months I was in constant conflict with this very weak administration who were too weak to even attempt to discipline me.

As other troops from Australia started to arrive, the senior officers were told 'beware of this so and so Smith, he’s a very difficult man to handle – a real firebrand'...

I was pushed around and given "the treatment". There was nothing I could do about it accept face up to every situation as it turned up. Numerous attempts were made to humiliate me and to frame me in all sorts of unexpected situations – but I refused to just lie down under such cowardly and unfair treatment...

I fought back, and in most of the violent clashes with high authorities I managed to wriggle out of the trouble and leave them “holding the baby” and in the wrong. This, of course, only made matters worse.


Lies of the official history
So his training of his men hadn't been poor. The men might have been inexperienced — most had been conscripted only a few months earlier — but they hadn't been poorly trained. What's in the Official Australian Government history is a lie.

What really happened was that the conditions at Port Moresby were so appallingly bad — the looting, the black markets, the corruption, the incompetence of Army Supply, the incompetence of Army Intelligence — that he had refused to look the other way. In trying to do his job he made bitter enemies at high levels of a deeply corrupt and incompetent Army command structure. It was so deeply corrupt that it arranged for lies to be put into the official Government history to damage the brigadier's military reputation and career, and his reputation generally, in perpetuity. That's how deeply corrupt the Australian Army high command was in WWII and in the two decades after.

Refused an order
Though this, discussed above, isn't the entire explanation of the absence of his name from the Official History and criticism in other Government publications such as John Hetherington's biography of Blamey. According to Smith's family, he refused and order for an attack in the Gona-Buna-Sanananda area in late 1942. He refused it on the ground that it would be a massacre of Australian troops. He told his family that the military objective could have been secured in two weeks with few casualties, and that there was no pressing military reason for urgency, but the order from the top was to attain the objective in three days. He said that this time period was so murderously short because the political hierarchy back in Canberra wanted quick press headlines of victory: the top brass and politicians wanted a quick victory no matter what the cost.

The troops themselves later referred to the "slaughter" caused by Army orders from Blamey's level in late 1942 and early 1943. For instance, Peter Brune in his book, "Those Ragged Bloody Heroes" says about the battle for Gona in late 1942:

...the Gona slaughter was in full spate. (p 233)


Colin Kennedy (14th Brigade) in his book, "Port Moresby to Gona Beach" says:

By the time Gona fell [December 1942] the total cost for the Australians was shattering. (p 146)


F. M Budden:(14th Brigade) in his, "That Mob! The Story of the The 55/53rd" says,

...the murderous operation that would go down in history as the Battle of Sanananda Track. (p 61)


Bad intelligence
Smith's daughter, Win Smith, told me in about 2000 while I was researching Smith's war correspondence, that in 1942, she had regular contact with Capt. Les Marchant, the 14th Inf. Bde.'s Staff Captain. There was an Australian Army intelligence structure, "Military Intelligence" ("ISD"), that was separate from the divisional structure. Brigade and division HQs also had their own intelligence officers (IOs). The Intelligence from Military Intelligence was so bad in New Guinea in 1942 and early 1943 that Smith disappeared by himself to try and discover the disposition and other details of the enemy. Les Marchant and others thought that he had been captured or killed, but he turned up about a week later with the information he needed.

The definitive account of these intelligence failures including the aversion of Australian Military Intelligence to actually gathering intelligence, can be found in David Horner's 1982 book, "High Command", Chapter 10, "Allied intelligence co-operation in the SWPA", pp 224-242. For instance, Horner says:

With the ISD in New Guinea determined to conduct 'commando' operations rather than 'intelligence' operations, Colonel Roberts recommended the relief of Colonel Mott ... [T]hroughout the dispute Mott had been in close touch with Blamey, who was furious at what he saw as an interference in his area of responsibility. (pp 234-235)


Private mail intercepted
Smith believed Blamey was having his private mail opened and contents reported back to Blamey. Some of his letters home went missing, and he started numbering his letters home. John Hetherington, Blamey's official Australian Army biographer, confirmed that Blamey was getting information about the content of the private mail of at least one of his brigadiers in New Guinea. Pages were removed from Brig. Spry's mail home, and content reported back to Blamey (John Hetherington, "Blamey: Controversial Soldier", 1954, page 174.


Threat to table documents in Parliament
In early 1943, in his letter home of 16 January 1943, reproduced below, Smith said that he had given Maj. Gen. Vasey, Australian commander on the ground at that time in Gona area of north-eastern New Guinea, a headache so big that all the headache tablets in New Guinea wouldn't cure it. My father told me that WES had threatened Vasey with tabling documents in Australian Federal Parliament, documents that proved the recklessness and wanton waste of life by top Australian commanders. He didn't table them. He might have got his way and his threats might have actually stopped further "slaughter", as the troops themselves later called it.

Federal Parliament. Letter home, 16 January 1943:

HQrs, 14 Aust. Inf. Bde...

Em

darling,... This is just the commencement of a fight which I will carry through to the bitter end, and will not hesitate to place the whole of the facts before the bar of the Federal House if necessary.

As you have no doubt gathered from some of my previous letters I have not been removed from my command, but have had the units of my Brigade taken from me one by one, and even my staff have been sent forward, and I have been left sitting in the foothills...

You were saying, "things have a way of turning out for the best." I believe it, for had I been forward during the recent ops, I would have been made the scapegoat for many things.

As it is, I've given Major. Gen. V. [Vasey] such a headache, that all the Aspros on this island won't cure it. Censorship reg's prevent me saying any more. The above is for your ears only...

Aspros were headache tablets. Em was his wife, Gladys Emily. He was referring to orders that are now regarded as suicidal, and were regarded at the time by WES and his troops as suicidal. The established wisdom now says that the orders originated with US general, MacArthur, who, always concerned for good press coverage, was seeing his presidential chances wane because of lack of victory headlines.

In February 1943, Smith's name was added to the register of unassigned officers. His name wasn't mentioned in the Australian government's official history of the New Guinea Campaign, his men were called cowards as a way to attack his character, he was criticised by Blamey and others, and he wasn't invited to any victory celebrations.

Memoirs. In his memoirs started not long after war's end he says:

I was greatly hurt and very bitter ... on my return to civilian life at this cowardly and unjust treatment...



e-mail: rsmith@onyx.co.nz