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Plaque unveiled by the Governor.
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25th August, 2012
Presentation of Commemorative Medallions to surviving Veterans
Address by Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC
Governor of Queensland

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the Honourable
Wayne Swan MP, Member for Nudgee, Mr Jason Woodforth,
Brisbane City Councillor, Fiona King,
Judge, Federal Court of Australia, The Honourable Justice John Logan RFD,
Consul General for Papua New Guinea in Queensland, Mr Paul Nerau OBE,
Commemorations Manager, Department of Veterans' Affairs Queensland,
Ms Robyn Mear, representing DVA Deputy Commissioner, Ms Alison Stanley,
Patron, 9th Battalions Association, Brigadier Rod Hamilton CSM RFD,
Commander, 7th Brigade, Australian Army, Brigadier Greg Bilton CSC,
Former Commanders, 7th Brigade, Major General Darryl Low Choy AM MBE RFD,
Major General Steve Golding AM RFD, and
Brigadier Hector MacDonald RFD and former Deputy Commander,
Brigadier Ray McNab CSC RFD,
Commanding Officer, 6 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, Wing Commander Terence Deeth,
Founder of the Milne Bay Memorial Library and Research Centre,
Major Pat O'Keeffe OAM (ret'd), Chairman, 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust, and fellow Trustees,
Chaplain, Reverend Keith Briggs,
President, Kedron Wavell Sub-Branch, RSL, Mr Rod Single,
Surviving Veterans of the Battle of Milne Bay and their families,
Relatives and descendants of others who fought at Milne Bay,

Ladies and Gentlemen, girls and boys.

It is with a deep sense of privilege, and with an equally deep sense of admiration and gratitude, that I join you today for this memorial service and ceremony to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay.  I thank and compliment the Chairman and Trustees of the 9th Battalions War Memorial Museum Collection and Property Trust for their effort in organising this commemoration and for their ongoing commitment to preserving the history and making the important story of Milne Bay better known - as it deserves to be.

Over the seventy years since the veterans present today endured and survived the appalling conditions at Milne Bay, and helped deliver a critical victory for the Allies, other campaigns, other battles, other points of action in the Second World War in the Pacific have become more familiar to most Australians - Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, for example - and most obviously, in the Papua Campaign, Kokoda - a name that has entered the lexicon; become part of the legend of the Aussie fighting spirit and a byword for bravery and challenge.

Yet Milne Bay - the Battle of Milne Bay - belongs in that legendary company. It represented the most enormous challenge from beginning to end - a logistical nightmare; a tough terrain of thick jungle and scrub, mangrove and sago swamp, an unforgiving climate, with its relentless rain and sucking mud for the men on the ground, and for the flyers, the steep mountains, low level cloud and swirling mists in the air, and when they landed and took off, that same sucking mud dragging them down.

And from beginning to end, it is a remarkable and absorbing story - about leadership, good and bad, about mistakes, setbacks and successes, about the savagery of war (to quote my husband's Uncle Frank, one of the veterans here today) "with no quarter given or taken" - and about its purpose -
to win.

And win they did, securing an important victory of considerable strategic and psychological importance.  The military historians have described it as: "The first time that Japanese forces had been defeated on land, shattering the myth of Japanese invincibility built up after a succession of victories across South East Asia", and again: "The first Japanese defeat on land; on a battleground of their choosing".

The soldiers' assessment was more simple: Milne Bay was "Where we turned them back" - although, as you can imagine, their vernacular was a little more graphic and explicit!  Not only was it "a bastard of a place", but it was "Where we turned the bastards back".

And it wasn't just a matter of turning them
back - the battle also represented a turning point -for Australian forces and for the Allies.  The fact that the Allied forces at Milne Bay were predominantly Australian gave a boost to the morale of Australian servicemen and civilians alike.  Fought on land, on sea and in the air, it was a triumph for both the battle-hardened soldiers of the 18th Brigade, veterans of the Middle East, but also - perhaps especially - for Queensland's own Seventh Militia Brigade under the command of (a Victorian) Brigadier John 'Paddocks' Field.  

The Seventh Brigade, made up of the 9th Moreton Battalion, the 25th Darling Downs and the 61st Queensland Cameron Highlanders, were largely untrained for what they were about to face at dawn on that Tuesday morning in 1942, when the Japanese launched their attack at Milne Bay, intent on establishing an advanced operating base that could support their thrust along the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby and beyond.  The ensuing battle lasted until the 7th of September, fought at close quarters (and remember - "no quarter given or taken") in that torrential tropical rain through the mud and slush, the soldiers plagued by malaria and other tropical diseases.  These young Australians struggled to defend the deep water harbour and its three vital airfields.  Had the Japanese won the battle, as they fully expected to do, they would have had just the base they needed not only to push home an attack on Port Moresby, but to secure control of the Coral Sea and launch a serious assault on Australia.  That's why I used the word €˜gratitude' at the outset.  We owe a great debt to the nearly 9,000 Allied Forces who fought this battle, who blocked those ambitions by dealing a decisive blow to an enemy that had never before tasted defeat.   Setbacks - yes - but never defeat; never before had they had to withdraw completely or abandon a strategic objective, and we owe an even greater debt to the 167 Australians killed or missing and the 206 wounded in the battle and, alongside them, from the small American contingent of engineers and an anti-aircraft battery, a further 14 lives lost and 5 wounded.  As we pay tribute today to the surviving veterans of Milne Bay and honour their service, so too, do we honour and mourn those who did not survive.

In just a moment, as part of that tribute, it will be my privilege to present commemorative medallions to the surviving veterans, but before I do, I wish to make two further points about the Battle of Milne Bay - about two very significant factors in its success.

The first I make is about the Commander of Milne Force - Queenslander, Warwick-born, Major General Cyril Clowes, very conscious of the presence in the audience of his daughter, Ms Lis Blake.  His command - his decisions - were of the utmost importance in winning this battle.   Known as €˜Silent Cyril', General Clowes was a highly experienced and highly decorated (CBE, DSO, MC) professional soldier, a veteran of both Gallipoli and the Western Front in the Great War.  As his nickname suggests, he was a laconic man who said little to people he knew well and even less to those he didn't.  

What was needed to halt the Japanese and the frightening speed with which they were moving down through Asia and the Pacific was a measured, tactical plan, executed with coolness and courage.  And this is what Clowes delivered.  Despite carping instructions and messages from a Headquarters in Australia telling him to attack, General Clowes, shrewdly and with determination and that characteristic coolness, stuck to his defensive plan, maintaining a decisive grip on the battle throughout.  The turning point of the battle came when he appreciated that the Japanese were unable to transport any forces to threaten the flanks or rear of the Australian positions.  The destruction of the landing barges on Goodenough Island and in Milne Bay by the RAAF having limited the Japanese very effectively to just one line of attack, he was able to commit the full strength of his brigades to forcing the Japanese back to their initial landing point.

His soldiers fought the Japanese to a standstill.  He had been right all along and wise - and courageous - not to pay too much heed to a distant HQ staffed by people who had no idea of the conditions the Australians faced.

Instead of being lauded for his leadership, however, he was relieved of his command amidst some particularly egregious, inaccurate and ill-informed criticism of him and of the performance of Australian soldiers.  I am happy to say that in more informed times, both the maligning of our troops and the criticism of Clowes have been resoundingly discredited.  As his Chief of Staff, Colonel Fred Chilton put it: "The only thing I think he can be criticised for, is his lack of public relations - for not sending back phoney reports about the wonderful job he was doing ... his reports were confined to purely military operations ..."

And those reports, I must say, make absorbing reading, leaving me in great admiration (to use another of the words I began with) of this modest Queenslander - and deeply sad that his leadership was not acknowledged as it should have been at the time.

I said I wanted to underline two key factors that helped determine the outcome of the Battle of Milne Bay.   In all the reading I have done about it (and I have been reading and reading) one of the most striking things is the role of the RAAF and the really effective (unprecedented according to some reports) interaction between the RAAF and the Army.  The performance in particular of the two P40 Kittyhawk Squadrons: 75 Squadron and 76 Squadron, which had been formed at Archerfield, was extraordinary.   We all know that the Australian Army €˜won its spurs' on the beaches at Gallipoli; what is less well known perhaps, is that there is a belief among many in the RAAF that Milne Bay was €˜their Gallipoli'.  I have also seen it described as the RAAF's "finest forgotten hour".

The aircrew and the ground crew worked under almost unimaginable conditions, defending their three airfields by night, while at the same time trying to repair aircraft and runways.  Then as day broke each morning it was "wheels in the well and guns armed" as they picked their way through atrocious weather and perilous terrain to undertake some of the finest ground attack operations ever performed - either before or since.   They were truly magnificent.  General Clowes reported that he believed the actions of 75 and 76 Squadrons particularly on that first day exactly seventy-five years ago today - 25th August - were a decisive factor in the ultimate victory.

As I say, Australians, then and now, have much to be grateful for to the men who fought at Milne Bay.  And if some of the Australian and American commanders of the time failed to appreciate just how much was owed them and how significant a victory it was, there were others who did, and I give the last word to that great soldier and leader, Field-Marshal Sir William Slim, who was at the time, the British Commander in Burma.  Slim was greatly encouraged by the news from Milne Bay:

We were helped too, by the very cheering piece of news that now reached us, and of which, as a morale raiser, I made great use.  In August and September 1942, Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land.  If the Australian, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we.  Some of us may forget that of all the allies, it was the Australian soldiers who broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember.

And, so, Ladies and Gentlemen, on this 70th anniversary, do we all have cause to remember and to thank and to honour all who helped to win the battle of Milne Bay.

On behalf of all Queenslanders, I thank them and I pay tribute to them.  Indeed, with the Deputy Prime Minister present, I believe I can express thanks and pay tribute on behalf of all Australians.   And I now unveil this plaque in their honour

Address by Her Excellency Ms Penelope Wensley AC