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Book Review: The Battle for Shaggy Ridge

21 September 2021

The extraordinary story of the Australian campaign against the Japanese in New Guinea's Finisterre mountains in 1943-44

Cover of book - The Battle for Shaggy Ridge

By Phillip Bradley

Allen & Unwin, 2021, 328

Reviewed by LTCOL Katherine Old

Named after Captain Robert ‘Shaggy Bob’ Clampett of the 2/27th Battalion, Shaggy Ridge is the location of one of the less renowned battles of the Australian military campaigns in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Shaggy Ridge is a commanding feature within the Finisterre mountains.  In 1943 it was the site of a main Japanese defensive position blocking access by Australian forces through the Ramu Valley as they conducted leap-frogging clearance operations along the Papuan northern coastline. The capture of Shaggy Ridge by the 18th Brigade cleared the way for an Australian advance across the Finisterres to the coast to link-up with allied forces advancing from the east.  As such it was instrumental in the capture of Madang and the Huon Peninsula. The strategic use of specialist forces, paratroops and the rapid deployment of Independent Companies (commandos) were paramount in the success of the overall campaign and had considerable influence on the way that the Australian Army ORBAT was shaped over subsequent years.

Map of Finisterre Range

In his newly released book The Battle for Shaggy Ridge, military historian Phillip Bradley re-examines the Australian military efforts against the Japanese in the Finisterre Range during a four month period from October 1943 to January 1944.  The book opens with an account of the Japanese advance to Kaiapit, a village in northern PNG, in response to the allied offensive against Lae.  Chapter one sets the book’s narrative style as one which provides a brief explanation of operational context followed by individual accounts of soldiers in combat. Subsequent chapters cover operations through the Ramu Valley, within the foothills of the Finisterre Range and among the formidably steep Finisterre mountains and ridges.

Terrain map of Shaggy Ridge

The Battle for Shaggy Ridge does not provide a clear account of the battle in the context of the broader Papuan Campaign.  Bradley evidently assumes that readers of the book will already have a solid grounding in the historical and strategic context within which Australian military campaigns in PNG took place.  Instead, the book focuses on bringing together accounts of over a hundred Australians, Americans and Japanese who served on, around and over the ridge, in order to provide insights into the day-to-day tactical reality of warfare at an individual level.  So, while this book claims to be an account of the military campaign, in reality it is much more a personal tale of human endeavour.  Indeed in many parts of the book, actions with no significance except to those involved take as much priority as do explanations of military events that were determinative of the battle’s outcome.

Drawing from letters, diaries and memoirs from veterans, the reader gains rare and valuable insights into the inter-personal dynamics that were prevalent among young allied and Japanese soldiers at the time, including their dealings with each other, with the (often overlooked) Papuan Infantry Battalion as well as with the local PNG men who were contracted to provide labour support to both sides. While it may come as no surprise that Australian inter-state rivalry was as rife in the Ramu Valley as it was back home in Australia, who knew that some Japanese soldiers characterised the Australians’ eulogised relationship with the PNG locals as unnecessarily cruel?  Elsewhere, passages that bring the visceral demands of close order combat into sharp relief are both compelling and revealing.

Providing perspectives from a range of veterans, both allied and Japanese, this book will appeal to those seeking to deepen their understanding of the events through an on-the-ground account from veterans who took part. By bringing first-hand records to the page, in The Battle for Shaggy Ridge we see the soldiers for what they were - ordinary people doing bloody and difficult things in very challenging terrain.  In providing this perspective, The Battle for Shaggy Ridge helps pierce the veil of mythology surrounding Australia’s involvement in the PNG theatre of operations. While the ethos of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice understandably dominate contemporary commentary around Australian military operations in PNG, Bradley’s book reminds us that it was war – and it was raw.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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