An Indispensable guide Mark Johnston, Wartime Issue 28
At last year's Chief of Army Military History Conference, with a theme of the Pacific War 1943-44, there was widespread agreement on the need for a new study of the Markham-Ramu Valley campaign. Phillip Bradley has met that need with his superb first book, On Shaggy Ridge .
This study of the 7th Division's New Guinea operations in 1943-44 complements John Coates's Bravery above blunder (1999), published in the same Army History series, concerning the 9th Division's campaign during the same period. Both are outstanding, but they approach their topics from different directions.
Lieutenant General Coates emphasises command decisions, whereas Bradley focuses on the men at the sharp end. They included his father, to whom the book is dedicated. As that gesture implies, the book is largely a tribute to the Australians who climbed, fought, suffered and prevailed on the high ground in the Finisterres in 1943-44.
Like Peter Brune, Bradley uses interviews to great effect. Future readers, especially historians, will forever be in Bradley's debt for spending years gathering information from key participants in the various actions. Among more than 140 veterans interviewed were Gordon King, leader of the commandos who won an extraordinary victory at Kaiapit; Noel Pallier, who led a seemingly impossible but successful attack on Pallier's Hill; Bob Johns, who conducted a classic defence of Johns' Knoll; and "Shaggy" Clampett, whose nickname gave the title to the massive ridge that took more than three months of heavy fighting to capture.
Bradley clearly admires his interviewees. The courage, mateship, pain and humour of Australian soldiers come through touchingly in this scrupulously annotated book
The danger with such "history from below" is that all but the men on the ground can become peripheral, bit-players in the story of the heroes' ordeals and triumphs. It is difficult for Australian historians to maintain a balanced outlook on the Pacific War. Yet Bradley has not fallen into the trap of ignoring other nationalities involved in this campaign. American airmen and engineers receive considerable coverage. Native people are discussed with the humanity and expertise of someone who knows the area at first hand. The sections on the Japanese are a quite brilliant combination of uncompromising, thoroughly researched analysis, and remarkable compassion. While evoking sympathy for the fever-wracked, forlorn but courageous Japanese, he pulls no punches on their brutality and blunders.
Inevitably, there are fewer criticisms of Australian efforts. However he offers model analyses of their plans and actions that will stimulate general readers and members of the Australian Army. The latter will surely find relevance in the detailed accounts of air transport to Nadzab and the commandos' epic fight at Kaiapit.
There are a few imperfections: some awkwardness of expression and grammar, and at times details about platoons and companies threaten to become excessive. There could have been more on General Vasey and other senior commanders, but their efforts are explained lucidly and succinctly. For the most part Bradley illuminates rather than obfuscates. For example, on little known technical topics, such as how Australian ground and air observers directed artillery fire in the jungle, the 75-millimetre gun used by the Mitchell bombers, the methods by which "blockbuster" bombs operated, the use and entrenchment of the Japanese mountain gun, and stretcher-bearing in the mountains, he is excellent. Moreover, his accounts of the fighting are gripping. Many of the anecdotes are literally cliffhangers, and there are numerous unforgettable images of sacrifice, desperate courage and loss.
On Shaggy Ridge is an indispensable guide to the Markham-Ramu Valley campaign, and will appeal to anyone interested in military history. We can all look forward to Bradley's next book, on the similarly neglected Wau-Salamaua campaign.