Merauke, Dutch New Guinea, 1942
Across the Dutch New Guinea border on the southern coast of the dragon shaped island of New Guinea at Merauke the administrative centre of Irian Jaya, a colony of a colonial possession, a few Dutch and Indonesian officials had remained. Also missionaries were still scattered throughout the region. At Tanahmerah, a penal settlement on the Digoel River, had hundreds of political exiles from Java and these persons were removed to Australia in case of possible escalation of hostilities and embarrassment to the authorities. The Netherlands East Indies Army established a forward outpost, with a radio set, in the mountains north of Kokenau overlooking Wissel Lakes, which flying boats could operate from. The AMF 62nd Battalion, commanded by Lieut-Col Haupt, an industrial chemist from South Australia and formerly of the AIF 2/1 MG Battalion, assisted the KNIL Garrison Company. The Australian Army battalion had arrived during December 1942 to February 1943 and had the task of defending the airfield and the dockyard area. For defence of the islands between the New Guinea mainland and the Australian continent was Torres Strait Force, under Colonel Langford, a grazier during times of peace also was in the 1st Light Horse Regiment and a Lieutenant of the Royal Field Artillery in the Great War of 1914-18.
The Australian Army commitments increased in this isolated region when on 6 May General MacArthur had ordered the Australian General Blamey to "augment the Torres Strait garrison by one brigade and such divisional troops as necessary to bring the strength of this area, including Merauke, in Dutch New Guinea, to approximately one composite division." Instructed to provide defences for York Peninsula, Torres Strait and Merauke were two AMF brigades of the Australian 4th Division. After the reinforcement of Merauke Force in early 1943 the troops deployed in the area included those from the AMF 62nd Battalion and 31/51 Battalion, a company of KNIL troops, an American anti-aircraft battery and port service detachments. Having the task of denying the airstrip and docks to the enemy, a defence position situated on the edge of the Ararufu Sea in which Japanese naval control was unlikely to be disputed and facing a possible strong attack by at least two enemy divisions, the 5th and 48th in the Timor – Ambon – Aru Japanese occupied area.
In May 1943 an infantry company of the AMF 26th Battalion arrived augmenting the strong force of engineers attached to the 11th Brigade HQ, now at Merauke, with Brigadier J.R. Stevenson as commander. His task included turning Merauke into a substantial operational base with the construction of airfields, roads, port facilities and other pre-requisites to do so. When completed the first aircraft of No.72 Wing landed on 30 June, and by July No.86 (Kittyhawk) Squadron was fully stationed at Merauke then joined by No.12 Dive-Bomber Squadron soon after. The Allied airforce had been at Merauke since mid 1942 and under intermittent air raids by the Japanese ever since. And by August 1943 there were RAAF radar stations at Cape Kombie and at the evacuated political penal inland settlement of Tanahmerah where a company from 26th Battalion guarded the village and also small observation posts were established at Mappi and Okaba under supervision of an infantry sergeant. On 9 September 1943 Merauke received its twenty-second ariel attack by 16 bombers and 12 fighters.
It was in December 1943 that the first clashes on the swamp-infested terrain between the belligerents happened in areas of Dutch New Guinea that were disputed. But it wasn’t ground forces as such that could concern dry land. To start the story a minor skirmish occurred in late November when a small party under Wing Commander D.F. Thomson set out from Merauke by boat to find a position for a forward outpost on the Eilandan River. He and one of his men were wounded by local natives, friendly with the Japanese, wielding stone axes as they alighted onto reasonably firm ground. And in another incident a Torres Strait islander, recruited to serve in the Australian Army, was wounded by Japanese small arms fire. Thomson, along with the other two casualties, were evacuated by flying boat. Captain Wolfe, an engineer with experience in long patrols already, took command of the launch Rosemary and the 20 feet long towboat then began to probe westward through the marsh-filled river channels. When his water borne patrol neared Japero on the 22 December they suddenly encountered two Japanese barges, each about 40 feet long carrying up to ten Japanese soldiers. A sharp brisk firefight began, the Japanese firing machine-guns and mortars, and the Australians returning the fire with their Bren guns and rifles, and as the watercraft came closer handgrenades were thrown. Then as quickly as the enemy appeared the Japanese were gone leaving one Australian killed, Corporal Barbouttis of 31/51 Battalion, plus six wounded.
Eventually "Post 6" was established inland near the mouth of the Eilanden River which is where a second clash between Australian troops and Japanese soldiers occurred. Here on the sultry evening of 30 January 1944 the Diggers at Post 6, under Lieutenant Roodakoff, born Russia 1920, held their fire until three leading Japanese watercraft of the enemy flotilla, consisting of three 30 feet barges and five 15 feet launches, were only 150 yards from their position. A torrent of lead from the hidden Australians killed about 60 Japanese outright and after a few minutes, before the recipients recovered from the surprise ambush, the Australians pulled back from the riverbank. The dazed Japanese gave both sides of the riverbank a thorough working over with everything they had for the next twenty minutes. Yet to no avail and after dark the remnants of the enemy force slipped downstream and out to sea. Then only to be hit the next day by Allied aircraft from Merauke, reporting four enemy barges strafed in the vicinity.
By February 1944 the 62nd Battalion was replaced by the 22nd Motorised Battalion. Then in August the 11th Brigade HQ withdrew for active operations elsewhere leaving the motorised troops as the sole Australian infantry component of the Meruake garrison. The Merauke Force patrolled an enormous area of difficult and diverse terrain advancing outposts and observation hides more than 200 miles to the north and northwest. The jungle hardened troops extended Allied military control in the inhospitable Irian Jaya area that lies south of the central main backbone mountain range of the New Guinea Island.
• Torres Strait Force, 1942 to 1945: The defence of Cape York-Torres Strait and Merauke in Dutch New Guinea by R.A. Ball