Men of the 2/33rd Battalion landing from LCIs, Landing Craft Infantry, on a beach at Balikpapan, secured earlier by troops of the 18th and 21st Brigades. Along with other battalions from 25th Brigade the 2/33rd was ordered to move past the troops holding the beach and engage the enemy in the hills beyond. Heavy fighting followed. The battalion lost 25 men killed and 57 wounded during the Balikpapan-Borneo campaign, the battalion’s last battle of World War II.

The battalion’s final action of the war was to help recapture Balikpapan in Japanese-held British and Dutch Borneo. It was a massive exercise. The landing on July 1, 1945, involved around 100 allied ships and 30,000 personnel, under the command of Major General Edward Milford. The Milford Highway, named after him, was the scene of some of the toughest fighting.

The invasion took place just six weeks before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. The invasion so close to the atomic bombings was the subject of controversy after the war. Critics argued it shouldn’t have happened. The 7th Division, which spearheaded the invasion, lost 229 killed and 634 wounded. High-ranking USA and Australian Army personnel involved in organising the invasion claimed they weren’t told about the atomic bombings beforehand. Hours of bombing and shelling by Australian and US air and naval forces almost obliterated the beaches and surrounding areas before the landing. The 25th Brigade, including the 2/33rd Battalion, was used as the 7th Division’s floating reserve.

The Brigade was committed to carry the fight to the Japanese who had retreated into the hills after being pushed back from the beaches in the first assault.

Despite being a reserve battalion the 2/33rd did the most fighting of any battalion during the 22 days of the campaign and suffered the most casualties–25 killed or mortally wounded and 57 wounded.

The Japanese continued to fight to the death in their last battles of the war. Even after relentless shelling they were difficult to dislodge from heavily fortified weapon pits, gun emplacements and underground bombproof shelters. They often used the cover of night to retreat. One example was on the night of July 21, when artillery and mortar units fired 6,000 rounds onto two of the last major Japanese-held positions, named Acid and Abode. An hour after the barrage stopped, revving trucks were heard. Come daylight the Japanese were nowhere to be seen.

Everyone had to be on constant guard against night suicide raids by fanatical Japanese with explosives strapped to their bodies. On July 8 there were three in one night on Battalion Headquarters command post and nearby mortar emplacements. Screaming and yelling suicide squads attacked with dagger-tipped bamboo spears. Attackers and defenders fought hand-to-hand to the death during the melees.

During the first attack a Navy star shell exposed six Japanese, including an officer, crawling along ready to attack. Luckily, gun crew leader, Corporal Les Skiffington who fired the battalion’s first shots of the war at Tidbury in England in 1940, spotted them and killed all six with his sub-machine gun, the most kills by an individual soldier in the battalion during the campaign.

As in all previous campaigns men of all ranks in the 2/33rd were outstanding in battle, showing great skill and courage. None showed greater courage and leadership than NX32658 Captain Phil Curry, one of the outstanding officers during the fighting on the Kokoda Trail and then Balikpapan.

Captain Curry was awarded the Military Cross for saving many lives on July 3, the first day of the landing, when intense machine gun fire from two enemy posts held up the battalion’s advance from the beachhead.

He led his A Company in a wide encircling movement across rugged, densely-wooded and hazardous country to attack the enemy from the rear, routing them and inflicting heavy casualties, and allowing the whole brigade front to advance. Captain Curry displayed actions over and above the call of duty many other times, which the award recognised.

His citation read: “Throughout the whole campaign Captain Curry displayed outstanding qualities of leadership, courage and determination, which were an inspiration to his company.”

NX101643 Lieutenant Burton Dawes won the battalion’s last Military Cross of the war for repeatedly risking his life in bullet swept areas to repair vital communications damaged by heavy artillery fire.

QX56046 Private A.J. Martin and VX11935 Lance Corporal R. Freeman won the battalion’s last Military Medals. Although seriously wounded Private Martin showed great bravery by attacking entrenched enemy pits single-handedly, killing a number of Japanese with grenades and his sub-machine gun.

Lance Corporal Freeman won his Military Medal for repeated bravery from July 3 to 17, rescuing many wounded soldiers, often under heavy fire. He was a master at eluding the enemy to find and save the men. As in every campaign there were bad luck stories, including those men killed by “friendly” fire. One of the saddest was the death of the greatly admired Captain “Heck” Davies, O.C. of B Company, an England original. Another was Private E.”Snowy” Lewis, batman for Lieutenant John May, O.C. of 16 Platoon. A mortar fired by the 2/31st Battalion mortally wounded Lewis and seriously injured May and Corporal Jim Brown while they were patrolling on the Milford Highway. The fortunes of war sadly counted against 29-year-old Lance Sergeant Harry Hamilton, mortally wounded in an ambush while leading a D Company patrol. The morning before he had received a photograph from his wife, Millicent, of their new-born first baby he was never to see. Being aware of the circumstances the O.C. of D Company Captain Jack Balfour-Ogilvy made a valiant attempt to save Hamilton. He wrote later: “When he was wounded, being aware of his child, I rushed forward under fire and carried Harry out along a narrow track. He was dead before we put him on the Jeep ambulance.”

It was 1000 hours, July 18, 1945. This very popular and dedicated N.C.O. was the last of the battalion’s battle dead in World War II. Like Harry Hamilton’s baby many other children of the 1940’s never knew their fathers. Tragically, especially hard hit were children who remembered fathers who didn’t come home from the war. One of them is Ernie Cafe.

His father, Syria and Kokoda veteran NX31802 Edwin Cafe, was mortally injured in the Liberator crash. Ernie wrote poignantly in the battalion’s newsletter Mud & Blood in 2000: “As a kid I used to imagine there would be a knock at the door and there would be my Dad, in uniform and greatcoat, .303 rifle slung over his shoulder and he would ask me had I been a good boy for my mother. Even although being old enough to dream, I knew that could never happen.”

The soldiers landing on the beaches at Balikpapan faced heavy opposition, but the fiercest fighting took place along the Milford Highway, where the Japanese made their last determined stand.

There was much hand-to-hand fighting when the Japanese made repeated nighttime suicide raids on 2/33rd Battalion and the positions of other battalions. Many were killed and wounded on both sides.

In one raid on July 18 a Japanese squad made an early morning attack on a 2/33rd mortar position, William Crooks wrote in The Footsoldiers: “For the next half an hour, until daylight, the place was the centre of a fury of defensive small-arms fire, bursting grenades and screaming Japs.

The raid cost the battalion four dead and six wounded. It was the greatest single loss in so short a fight on Balikpapan.

Many of the mortarmen were asleep in tents when the Japanese attacked. Some later got into trouble for carelessly having gone to bed stripped down to their white underpants and being ill-prepared for the fury of the raid. Their white underpants made them stark targets in the dark. Major combat operations ended around July 21 by which time the island had been largely secured. Mopping up operations continued for some weeks.

Patrols in villages during this period found many Indonesians murdered and mutilated, further evidence of Japanese brutality.

The 2/33rd fired its last angry shots on July 23. It was withdrawn to rest the following day, July 24.The US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9 ended the war.

On August 10, 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Cotton announced to a battalion parade that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was officially over. The 2/33rd Australian Infantry Battalion AIF Association was formed the same day with NX1138 Sergeant H.E “Black Bob” Roberts as president, and NX54362 Lieutenant D.R. “Doug” Wylie, as treasurer, a position he held for 60 years.

Seventy six years after that historic meeting the association stills stands proud honouring the service and memory of the men who wore the battalion’s red and brown colour patches into battles in the Middle East, Papua, New Guinea and Borneo.

NX146322 Leslie Thomson, one of the last surviving veterans, is a Life Member and Patron of the Battalion Association.

Captain Phil Curry, who was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding gallantry soon after the landing at Balikpapan.

Lt. John May was severely wounded during a Japanese mortar attack at Balikpapan. His batman standing alongside him, Private “Snowy” Lewis was killed.

Liberator crash victim, Edwin Cafe. As a boy his son, Ernie, used to dream about his father coming home, knocking on the front door, rifle over his shoulder.

Capt. Jack Balfour-Ogilvy who made a valiant attempt under heavy fire to save one of his wounded men, carrying him to safety, only to see him die minutes later.

The first waves of 18th Brigade going ashore at 0850 hours July 1, 1945, at Balikpapn, Borneo. Oil fires cloud the scene. It was one of the biggest amphibious landings of the war. It involved more than 100 ships and 30,000 personnel.

he 25th Brigade assembling along the beaches ready to move inland to support 18th and 21st Brigades. The skeleton-like palm trees indicate the ferocity of the mass naval shelling before the landing. Although a reserve force assigned to attack the enemy after other troops had secured the beaches, the 2/33rd suffered more losses and saw more action than any other battalion.

A 4-inch gun captured by B Company at Balikpapan on July 9, 1945.

Captain Phil Curry, O.C. A Company (back left with headgear) is seen here with
some of his officers and men examining a 6-inch gun captured on Operator feature, at Balikpapan.

Salvation Army Captain A.R. Hall serving tea to wounded and exhausted 2/33rd men on the Milford Highway, NX50253 Private Sydney Oldfield of B Company closest to the camera and QX45178 Private Edward Hobbs of H.Q. Company, partly obscured by Captain Hall.

Bailing out a Vickers machine gun pit at Balikpapan, July 15, 1945. Private B. Harrington bailing while Private A. Green cleans the gun.

Private E.H. Palmer and Private H.D. Hilyear carrying ammunition belts during the battalion advance on Metal feature at Balikpapan.

Balikpapan, Borneo, July 9, 1945: Lieutenant Col Truman, left, with members of H.Q. Company and the Machine Gun Platoon moving past one of the five heavy Japanese coastal defence guns captured by the 7th Division.

13 Platoon C Company in their lines at Metal-Margin camp, Balikpapan, after the end of hostilities.

VX93035 Private Len Sutherland of 18 Platoon on patrol east of the Milford Highway, August 18,1945

Privates Sam Newman and Fred Perritt, two old hand signallers (Sam a U.K. original) sitting on a Japanese 250-pound bomb and having a smoke alongside Milford Highway, July 23, 1945.

The C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Cotton with his officers at Klandasan, Balikpapan, Borneo, November, 1945. He often expressed great pride in their ability.

Following the Japanese surrender the C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Cotton was involved in the handover of Pontianak back to the Dutch, a delicate duty because of separatists who wanted to take control. Above, the C.O. is listening to a Dutch interpreter read the allied occupation proclamation at Pontianak, with his British, Dutch and Australian staff. Town dignitaries are standing behind him.

Brigadier Woods, Commanding Officer of the 25th Brigade, accompanied by Lt. Col. T.R.W. Cotton, inspects a 2/33rd Battalion Guard of Honour in the grounds of the former Dutch Residency, at Pontianak, Borneo, on October 16, 1945, during one of a number of formal handover ceremonies following the Japanese

Japanese P.O.W.’s exercising in one of the duty compounds under 2/33rd Battalion guard at Balikpapan.

The C.O. Lt. Col. Tom Cotton leading C Company and some of H.Q. Company into the Dutch Regency grounds to formally take over Pontianak in south-west Borneo. Note the bowing populace still unsure after being made to do this during the recent Japanese occupation. Those who refused to bow to the Japanese were often brutally punished