From Syria To Gona And Kokoda In Between – Captain Harry KATEKAR M.I.D. of the 2/27th Battalion

Most of us in the modern western world are lucky enough, never to know hunger.  That intense kind of hunger which gnaws away at your stomach and causes you to drop around 12 kilograms of body weight in just two weeks.  Very few of us know what it is like to sleep in pouring rain …. to be constantly wet with nothing but a cotton shirt or thin woollen pullover to protect you from the elements.  Or to suffer from festering open wounds – where your only chance to ward off gangrene, is to allow the maggots to infest your injury and eat away the rotten flesh.

But then again, most of us did not happen to grow up in South Australia ….. find ourselves serving with the 2/27th Infantry Battalion ….. or get cut off from all supplies and services on the Kokoda Track. 

In fact, if you had just graduated from University with a degree in Law; and were preparing to open your own Solicitor’s Office in Renmark, South Australia – life would be looking fairly promising.  Or so Harry KATEKAR may have thought.

IMAGE RIGHT:  Henry “Harry” KATEKAR, 2/27th Battalion Infantry Battalion AIF wearing the two ‘pips of a Lieutenant on his rank boards.  It is believed that this photograph was taken in 1940 before Harry’s deployment to the Middle East or during 1941, after Harry’s return to Australia (prior to his promotion to Captain).

Henry John KATEKAR, or ‘Harry’ as he was more commonly known was born on the 24th of August, 1914 at Mile End in South Australia.  Educated at Scotch College – Harry graduated with a law degree from Adelaide University in 1937.  He was in the process of setting up a practice for a law firm in Renmark when the Second World War broke out.  Having entered into a binding agreement with the proprietors of the law firm, he received their consent to break the contract and enlisted into the Second AIF.  He would enter the South Australian 2/27thInfantry Battalion in May of 1940 as a Private.  However, in accordance with his educational background -Harry was offered a commission and he would serve with distinction as a lieutenant during the Syrian Campaign.

After Greece and Crete had fallen, it was thought that the Germans might attempt to capture the Suez Canal by attacking through Lebanon and then Syria.  Units from the 7th Division were moved from Palestine to strengthen the defences along the Libyan border; however a German attack failed to eventuate.  The men of the 21st Brigade then returned to Palestine in late May of 1941, in order to prepare for the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon.  However, their enemy in this engagement was not to be the German Army.  But French troops of the Vichy Government who despised the “Free French” and their leader, Charles De Gaulle.  It was hoped that these Vichy French troops would capitulate, however nothing was further from the truth.  They were large in number and well equipped.  Their ranks also included the hardened men of the legendary French Foreign Legion.  So with a distinct hatred for their countrymen who were Allied with Great Britain;  the Vichy French would prove to be a tough and determined foe.  After five weeks of bitter fighting, the Australians would prove victorious in July of 1941.

 A decision by Churchill to deploy an Australian Division to the Far East was countermanded by Australia’s Prime Minister, John Curtain when Singapore fell to the Japanese.  As a result, the 7th Australian Division was brought back to defend their homeland, arriving in March of 1942.

When the Japanese landed at Gona in July of 1942, the 2/27th would find themselves en route to Port Moresby along with their compatriots of the 21st Brigade (the 2/14th from Victoria and the 2/16th from Western Australia).  At this time, the Militia Battalions of the 39th and 53rd Infantry were already fighting for their lives on the Kokoda Track.

IMAGE LEFT:  The ‘brown over light blue’ diamond colour patch of the 2/27th Infantry Battalion, AIF.  This unit would fight it’s first battle on the Kokoda Track at a feature called ‘Mission Ridge’ during the battle for Brigade Hill.  As a result of the battle, the 2/27th would spend the next two weeks – cut off from their supplies and the rest of the 21st Brigade – as they fought a new battle …. against the harsh jungles of New Guinea.

 As the 2/14th Infantry Battalion pushed forward to assist the beleaguered 39th Infantry Battalion (A.M.F) the 2/16th soon followed.  The South Australians of the 2/27th Battalion were tasked to stay behind and garrison Port Moresby; pending the outcome of the Milne Bay action being fought at that time.  It was only when the Japanese were repulsed at Milne Bay, that the 2/27th were ordered forward in a gruelling forced march.  Any idea of defending Myola by this stage had to be abandoned.  Brigadier Potts’ next defensive position was the feature known as ‘Brigade Hill’.  Some would call it “Butchers Hill”.  But with the arrival of the 2/27th at Mission Ridge (the northern slope leading up to Brigade Hill), the 21st Brigade were at last together.  Though the Victorians and their Western Australian counterparts were exhausted and depleted as a result of the fighting withdrawal from Isurava and Abuari.  Harry KATEKAR and his men would find themselves in the fight of their lives.  Despite the fact that Harry was now Battalion Adjutant, he and all of his colleagues of H.Q. Company would be in the thick of the battle.  Tuesday the 7th of September, 1942 would be a day that the South Australians would never forget.

IMAGE RIGHT: The Second World War Campaign medals of Captain Henry ‘Harry’ John  KATEKAR, showing his service number which was SX3079.  As was common with some early issue Second World War medals, the service stars (1939-1945 Star, Africa Star & Pacific Star)  are not engraved with his name and service number.   The story behind this medal set is almost as amazing as the story behind the man himself.

With the 2/27th dug in on the slopes of Mission Ridge in a tight diamond shaped perimeter, ‘A’ Coy at the front – right of the “diamond” bore the brunt of the attacks.  The Japanese hammered the 2/27th Infantry Battalion with their mountain guns and mortars, supported by heavy 7.7 calibre Juki machine guns.  The Australians had very little in the way of ‘long range’ weapons to respond.  However, the Australians had done very well prior to the lead up of the Brigade Hill battle.  By this date; and General Horii’s rather ambitious timetable – his Japanese forces should have been in Port Moresby ….. not Brigade Hill.  He had been forced to lose 4 days at Isurava and had lost another 6 before deploying his force near Mission Ridge.  (Page 199 – A Bastard of a Place)

According to author Peter Brune, at best – the Australians mustered about 980 men and the Japanese outnumbered them approximately 4 or 5 to 1.  (Pg 200 – A Bastard of a Place)  Bill James; the author of the Field Guide To The Kokoda Track – suggests that figure could be as high as 6 to 1 (pg 225 – Field Guide).  Regardless of the figures, the Japanese still held the upper hand.  By nightfall of the 7th September,  six of their prized Brens had been knocked out by Japanese fire – their entire supply of 1200 grenades was used up (plus the Battalion reserve of grenades) and each rifleman had fired at least 100 rounds per man.  Not to mention, the diggers were suffering from the severe heat of the New Guinea sun and a shortage of water.  

IMAGE LEFT: A butt plate from an Australian Bren Gun, discovered on the forward slopes of Mission Ridge in September, 2010.  The area was called Mission Ridge, due to the existence of a derelict 7th Day Adventist hut which was standing on that slope.  Where this artifact was located – was in the exact positions manned by South Australians of the 2/27th Battalion between the 6th and the 8th of September, 1942.  Not far from where this butt plate was located, a discarded Bren Gun magazine lay rusting and a ‘live’ M36 grenade was found.

But things went badly for the Australians on other parts of Brigade Hill, forcing Brigadier Potts to break contact with the Japanese on the 8th of September.  The 2/27th was subsequently forced to take to the jungle with the intention of regaining the trail at the village of Menari.  With the track cut off to them, remnants of the 2/14th, 2/16th and the 2/27th  took to the bush through a steep and narrow track in a bid to reach Menari.  Fighting a rearguard action as they left Mission Ridge, the tail end sections of the 2/27th made several short, sharp rushes back towards the Japanese – with the bayonet, to confuse the Nipponese attackers and slow down their advance.   It was a point of pride for the men of the 2/27th that they never gave any ground to the Japanese.  Their withdrawal only being necessitated as a result of Japanese successes elsewhere on Brigade Hill.

Encumbered by 16 stretcher cases – from all three units – the battalion was forced to regain its lines via a 14 day trek through some of the toughest terrain in the world.   Regarding the day of 13th of September, 1942 Harry recalled – “The wounded, God only knows, were going through purgatory, hungry and in great pain.  Some of our natives began t desert, meaning that our men had to replace them as bearers (understandably, the native would soon be gone).  ‘Doc’ Viner-Smith allowed the maggots to remain on the wounds in order to eat the rotting flesh and so prevent gangrene … I found it a great mental strain and so did the C.O. and other officers, with that great responsibility of not only saving our wounded but of saving ourselves from starvation”.  He had run out of food four days previously. 

IMAGE RIGHT:  A rifle bolt from an Australian SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) No. 1 Mk III rifle.  This relic was found on the forward slopes of Mission Ridge, New Guinea during September 2010.  Note the shape of the bolt head, which is of the “First World War” design (indicating that the rifle from which this bolt pertains was a surplus rifle from the Great War, re-issued during World War Two).

On the 15th of September, 1942 – Harry KATEKAR made a very welcome discovery.  He would tell author Peter Brune in July of 1987:- “By this time the men were desperately exhausted and it was a cruel blow to them to be told to about-turn. A couple of providential incidents occurred that day; it seemed as if God was taking a hand in the matter. While we were waiting outside Nauro it suddenly occurred to me that a lot of the food which had been dropped by our planes would be scattered far and wide in the undergrowth around the village ….. I wandered off into the jungle in search of food. Something must have led me to the spot, for after a while I noticed that a branch of a tree had been broken off, as if by a fallen object, and so looking down I saw a bag covered bundle. Almost tenderly I went down on my knees to tear away some of the bag. And lo and behold inside was a perfectly good tin of Arnott’s Army biscuits. Some of the starving men were watching me, and it was as much as I could do to stop them from struggling to get a share. I managed to salvage some of the biscuits which were distributed amongst our wounded. In the meantime a flank guard patrol of ‘B’ Company had stumbled over a 25 lb tin of Crowe & Newcombe’s dried apricots ….”

Harry KATEKAR’s untiring efforts greatly assisted the return march. He had organised the whole column so that all burdens were shared equally and the battalions strength was conserved.  As a result, he and his fellow officers brought the battalion home – intact and still with the weight of their weapons.  It is hard for us to imagine, but the joy of reaching the Australian lines …. knowing that fresh troops had now taken over the battle – would be dampened by an incident which is now infamous in Australian Military History.

The 2/27th Infantry Battalion, after enduring such hardship – was present at the Koitaki Plantation when General BLAMEY made his famous “it’s the rabbit that is running away” address to the troops of the 21st Brigade. 

IMAGE LEFT:  The background parcel of land was once the site of the cricket pitch at Koitaki Plantation.  Harry KATEKAR was present on this field when General BLAMEY gave his infamous address to the men of the 21st Brigade, 7th Division after their epic fighting withdrawal along the Kokoda Track.  The brick pillars held up the original gates to the plantation.  Behind the trees to the left is a creek and to the right, the ground slopes up to a hill which affords a view over the flat ground.

Lieutenant-Colonel Norman  CARLYON  O.B.E  was General Blamey’s Aide-De-Camp during 1940-1942, Personal Assistant during 1942-1944 and Military Assistant during 1944-1945.  In the book, “I Remember Blamey” he recalls:  I was there when those fine soldiers formed up, not far from what had been the start-line for their thrust against the enemy.  New Guinea’s stormy temperatures being what they are, it may seem absurd for me to say that I was in a cold sweat.  Standing beside the small platform from which Blamey was to address the troops, I realised that he was in a most aggressive mood.  He was soon expressing this in harsh words.   He told the men that they had been defeated, that he had been defeated, and Australia had been defeated.  He said this was simply not good enough.  Every soldier here had to remember that he was worth three Japanese.  In future he expected no further retirement, but advance at all costs.   He concluded with a remark which I think was particularly ill-chosen and unfair.  ‘Remember’ he said, ‘it is not the man with the gun that gets shot; it’s the rabbit that is running away’  It amazed me that Blamey should deal so insensitively with the men of such a well-proved brigade”  (excerpt from Page 17 – Gona’s Gone,  Peter Brune)

IMAGE RIGHT:  Another shot of the Koitaki Cricket pitch area, showing the “flat” ground where BLAMEY’s address took place.  Note how the ground to the far right begins to rise (and continues to in it’s slope to form a hill overlooking the cricket pitch area).

In an interview with the ABC’s Four Corners progam, Harry KATEKAR would comment, “It was a shameful, call it cowardly, attack on men that had given their all”.   Corporal John Burns,  2/27th AIF and hero to the stretcher cases during the two week ordeal ….. would comment, “It stirred them up like I’ve never seen troops stirred up before and, personally, I reckon Blamey was lucky to get out of it alive that night”.

After a short respite, the men of the 2/27th were again thrust into the horrors of combat.  On November 28, 1942, the 2/27th arrived at Gona with 22 officers and 301 other ranks; only to suffer further heavy losses in desperate attacks – against Japanese machine-gun fire.  The Japanese positions at Gona were very well dug in, and laid out in such a way so as to give supporting fire to eachother.  To attack one position, meant that you drew heavy fire from other machine guns on your flanks.  Harry KATEKAR would be one of only three officers to fly out after the battle; with 67 other ranks.  About the Gona fighting, Harry would again make reference to the Koitaki incident and comment “And they were absolutely ropable! Incensed! In fact I claim to this day that some of the officers who we lost at Gona were killed because of the effect of Blamey’s unfair criticism….”

He told author Peter Brune:- “We were thrown in with scant information about the enemy, no aerial photographs, nothing to go on. I don’t recall ever seing a proper plan of the are showing where 25th Brigade was at theat time when we were supposed to go in or, in fact, what the 2/14th were doing on our right. The whole thing was rushed and therefor one can expect there to be what actually transpired – a slaughter of good men! The correct way to get information is to send in recce patrols. That’s always the way you do it, because you get the enemy to disclose where he is. You don’t go in with a full company rushing in against something you know nothing about”.

IMAGE LEFT:  The ‘Gona Cross’ stands above some graves of local Papuans, in the coastal village of Gona at the start of the Kokoda Track.  If you look closely, you will note that the upper portion of the cross has been joined onto the vertical post.  This upper portion is the original wartime cross and bears the scars of battle.  The lower portion had rotted away and the local villagers re-erected it onto a new upright.  A mission station ministered by Father John Benson before the Japanese invasion, this cross could be seen by the Australian troops during the fighting for Gona Village.

Harry would later serve as Brigade Major to the 6th Brigade and was one of only two Australian officers, who was sent to the U.S. Marine Amphibious Landing School in Quantico, Virginia.  Upon his return from the United States; he would serve as Brigade Major for the 26th Brigade and finally finish his war service at Tarakan.  The World War Two Nominal Roll states that Harry discharged from the AIF on the 30th of November, 1945.  He ended the war with the same posting that he had joined at the start of the war; the 2/27th Infantry Battalion.

With Harry’s father taking ill, he made the decision not to return to his law practice.  Rather the decision was made to run the family citrus property at Renmark titled “Fairview”.   Harry joined the Riverland Legacy Group in 1947 and served as its chairman in 1952.   He also joined the Renmark RSL, serving as its president in 1951.  In continuing his service to the community; Harry became a member of the Renmark Irrigation Trust and became actively involved in citrus industry moves, to form a statutory citrus committee in the 1960’s.  This eventually led to the formation of the Citrus Board of South Australia.   He was also one of the first growers to later test the suitability of the Riverland area for the production of avocados.  But Mr Katerkar’s greatest peacetime achievement was probably his role as chairman of the Renmark Flood Emergency Committee during the River Murray flood of 1956.

IMAGE LEFT:  The War Service Medals of Captain Henry ‘Harry’ John KATEKAR from left:- the 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 War Medal (note the Oak Leaf on the ribbon to signify M.I.D. or Mentioned In Dispatches) and the 1939-1945 Australia Service Medal.

The Playford Government put him in charge of evacuation, essential services, the co-ordination of manpower, and public relations and communications, a task well suited to his military background.  Mr Katekar’s leadership, calm direction and lateral thinking contributed greatly to preventing the township of Renmark being inundated with water during the flood.

In both war and peace, Mr Katekar modestly strove to uphold the 2/27th’s proud motto: Primus inter Pares – First Among Equals.   Sadly, he passed away in December of 2000 …. his duty ‘nobly done’.  He was survived by his wife of 57 years, Edna and four daughters, Ann, Margaret, Jane and Allison who have borne him a whole swag of grandchildren.

IMAGE RIGHT:  Harry’s sister, Helen with her brother’s war service medals.

You know the mark of a man when an author of such high standing in Kokoda circles such as Peter Brune, prepares your Eulogy.  In that short narrative, Peter Brune was to state:- “Harry KATEKAR saw the many faces of war – bravery, suffering, hardship, tragic loss and compassion.  Driven by the experience, Mr Katekar spent the rest of his life serving his community”.   One of the things which I found amazing about Harry KATEKAR – is a trait that he shares with the majority of servicemen of that era.  That is the trait of humility.  There was very little written about Harry KATEKAR after the war; because he did not wish to advertise or over emphasize his part played in the conflict.  Like the other men of his era, he just came back and got on with his life ….never expecting anything in return for five years of service to his country. 

Harry KATEKAR ….. and that generation of men and women ….. will always be heroes to me.  And I wish I could have met him in person.  (The Administrator – Medals Gone Missing)

WISH TO READ MORE ABOUT HARRY KATEKAR AND THE 2/27TH INFANTRY BATTALION, AIF ?  Three books of which Harry Katekar is well quoted are as follows:-

A Bastard of a Place by Peter Brune

Those Ragged Bloody Heroes by Peter Brune

Gona’s Gone by Peter Brune

If Harry’s story has touched you –  I thoroughly recommend you attend the Australian War Memorial and listen to an audio interview, conducted by Rob Linn with Captain Katekar as part of the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive.  To hear Harry’s voice for the first time; after having read so much about him and spoken his name many times on the Kokoda Track, was a very emotional and profound experience for me.  For a link to this recording, please Click Here.

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About gary

Gary Traynor is the volunteer Administrator of the Militaria based website MEDALSGONEMISSING. The aim of this "NOT FOR PROFIT" website is to reunite families, with lost War Medals and other items of militaria. Anything from medals to items of uniform. What Gary refers to as their "lost heritage". He has been actively involved in the Militaria world and researching of Military History for well over 30 years. As a result, Gary also conducts valuations and offers advice on all items of militaria. He has acted as advisor to a number of television and Foxtel productions; including Sir Tony Robinson's "Tour of Duty" series which featured on the History Channel. Gary is a field historian and conducts tours to Gallipoli, The Western Front, Kokoda and many other major battle sites around the world. He was a member of the Australian Army Reserve (UNSWR & 4/3 RNSWR) and served for 23 years with the New South Wales Police Force. He is perhaps the only person who has been employed at the Australian War Memorial in all three capacities .... as a volunteer, part time and full time employee .... starting as a qualified tour guide, working in the public galleries as an Information Assistant and finally Assistant Curator in Military Heraldry & Technology. Medalsgonemissing is a website that will assist you in locating your family's lost war medals and other awards. If you have an ancestor who served in any of the British Commonwealth Armed Services at any time - and whose medals are lost/stolen or simply missing....then so long as the medals are out there - this site will help you to locate them. However the site also contains articles of interest in relation to Military History, War Memorials & Uniforms / kit. Please explore our website as there is sure to be something of interest to you.
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2 Responses to From Syria To Gona And Kokoda In Between – Captain Harry KATEKAR M.I.D. of the 2/27th Battalion

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