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Battle of Sattelberg

17 NOV 1943: Today in the Pacific Campaign, Australia’s 9th Division begins its attack on Sattelberg (also spelt Satelberg, translation ‘Saddle Mountain’), a village on the Huon Peninsula, in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea).

The Battle of Sattelberg took place between 17 and 25 November 1943, during the Huon Peninsula campaign of the Second World War. Involving forces from Australia, the United States and Japan, the fighting centred on the Sattelberg mission station which was situated atop a hill about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above sea level, approximately 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) inland from Finschhafen, New Guinea.

Following the Australian landing at Scarlet Beach, a large force of Japanese had retreated inland towards Sattelberg.

Holding the high ground, the Japanese subsequently threatened the Australian lines of communication as they proceeded to advance south towards Finschhafen, and in order to neutralise this threat, the Australian 26th Brigade was tasked with capturing the mission.

Over the course of 10 days they advanced west from Jivevaneng up the southern approaches to the mission, reducing the Japanese position with armour, artillery and air support, before the Japanese finally abandoned Sattelberg and withdrew north to Wareo, having suffered heavy casualties and running low on supplies.

The peninsula is dominated by the steep Saruwaged and Finisterre and Cromwell Mountains. The nearest large town is the Morobe provincial capital Lae to the south, while settlements on the north coast include the former German town of Finschhafen, the district capital of Wasu, Malalamai and Saidor with its World War II era Saidor Airport.

On 17 November, fighting for the main position around Sattelberg commenced.

The previous night, in order to prepare for the attack on the 2200 feature, the 2/48th Battalion captured Green Ridge, a small but important feature that dominated the Sattelberg road.

The capture of the ridge secured a start line forward of Jivevaneng for Whitehead’s 26th Brigade to launch the first stage of their attack upon Sattelberg.

The following day, the 2/48th Battalion handed over responsibility for the defence of the ridge to a company from the 2/23rd Battalion, and the attack commenced amidst heavy supporting artillery and machine-gun fire.

In response, the Japanese artillery from Sattelberg fired a limited barrage onto the Australians on Green Ridge.

The terrain upon which the Australians advanced hampered their movement considerably. Consisting mainly of steep “razor-back” ridges and thick jungle which restricted the tactics that Whitehead could employ, the 26th Brigade mainly employed infiltration tactics, advancing on “narrow fronts” using columns of troops consisting of an infantry company forward, followed by a troop of tanks with an engineer section in support.

Initially the Japanese were surprised by the presence of the Matilda tanks as their noise had been masked by the artillery and rocket barrage, and a number of positions were abandoned by Japanese soldiers who were put to flight upon seeing the tanks, however, as the day progressed the opposition stiffened and the defenders recovered after the initial shock.

Progress subsequently became very slow, and as the 2/48th Battalion approached “Coconut Ridge” (designated Highland 5 by the Japanese) at around midday, one of the Matildas was disabled when it lost a track to an improvised explosive device which had been placed under the road by the defending Japanese.

With the tanks isolated from their infantry support, a small Japanese team advanced from cover to attack a second tank which had come up to support the first, and taking the machine gunner by surprise, they placed an explosive charge in front of it. Although the resulting explosion did not knock the tank out of action, it trapped its crew inside for the rest of the day.

Firing upon the Australians with machine-guns, mortars and grenades, the Japanese defenders upon Coconut Ridge held up the advance.

Throughout the rest of the day, the 2/48th Battalion undertook a series of flanking attacks in which at least 80 Japanese were killed, however by nightfall the Japanese still held the ridge, and the 2/48th Battalion withdrew to a nearby knoll to reorganise, having suffered six killed and 26 wounded.

Elsewhere, the other two Australian battalions had also found the going slow: the 2/24th had dug in east of the 2200 feature, while the 2/23rd had only managed to advance about half the expected distance.

The Japanese abandoned Coconut Ridge that night, while in the morning the Australians brought up three replacement tanks. At around 7:00 am, an Australian patrol scouted the ridge and an hour later a platoon attack was put in, confirming that the defenders had gone.

As battlefield clearance operations got underway, the tanks that had been disabled the day before were also repaired, bringing the total number of Matildas available to seven.

In the early afternoon, the advance was resumed, however the Australians only managed to progress a further 250 yards (230 m) before they were halted by stiff opposition from Japanese armed with 37 mm anti-tank guns.

A number of these pieces were destroyed and at least 40 Japanese were killed or wounded, but Japanese snipers inflicted a number of casualties upon the Australians, and although none were fatal it prevented any further gains as the 2/48th spent most of the day hunting the snipers in the trees.

Elsewhere, in front of the 2,200 feature and on the southern flank, only limited progress was made by the Australians, who suffered a number of casualties from Japanese 75mm mountain guns before these were silenced by a bombardment by the 2/12th Field Regiment.

At dusk, the Australians dug in less than 30 yards (27m) from the Japanese defence line and sporadic fighting continued throughout the night.

That night, Wootten decided to take stock of the slow progress along the southern and central routes. Based on captured documents, Australian intelligence reports placed the number of Japanese troops around the mission at about 2,000 men.

These men were believed to be from the 80th Infantry Regiment, which the Australians felt was close to exhaustion and unlikely to be able to withstand any further pressure.

As a result of this information, Wootten decided to change the concept of operations.

Although the 2/24th Battalion’s attack on the 2,200 feature had originally been intended to serve as a holding action, the lack of progress by the 2/48th and 2/23rd encouraged Wootten to order the 26th Brigade’s commander, Whitehead, to concentrate his efforts upon the 2,200 feature, turning the drive on Sattelberg into a “double-pronged” attack, with the 2/24th also attempting to break through to Sattelberg. Photo: Troops move in behind Matilda tanks for a dawn attack on the Japanese-held village of Sattelberg. This photograph was taken during the attack. More;

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