In August 1942 the Japanese were hell-bent on taking the city of Port Moresby in New Guinea. Trying to stop their inexorable advance along the Kokoda Track near Isurava was the 39th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Army.
The battle that resulted was going badly for the Australians when reinforcements arrived—and one man among them turned the tide by charging the enemy with a Bren gun.
Bruce Steel Kingsbury was born on January 8, 1918, in Melbourne, Australia to British immigrants. When he was five years old, Kingsbury met his best friend, Allen Avery. They were inseparable as they grew up.
After a brief stint working at his father’s real estate business, Kingsbury quit to go and work on a farm to be near his friend. They left their jobs in 1936 for several months of adventuring—walking from Melbourne to Sydney, working on various farms along the way.
Upon returning home, they enjoyed several years of peace until World War II broke out in Europe. On May 29, 1940, Kingsbury joined the Australian Imperial Force and was assigned to the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion.
When he discovered Avery had also enlisted and was in the 2/14th Infantry Battalion, he applied for a transfer to be with his best friend. After basic training, they were assigned to the 7th Division and in late 1940 were sent to the Middle East.
They were first sent to Tel Aviv where they continued training, and then Egypt and Syria. In Lebanon in 1941, they were involved in combat against the Vichy French that culminated in the Battle of Jezzine, where Avery was wounded.
The 2/14th was recalled to Australia in January 1942. They spent the summer training for their next objective: fighting the Japanese. Their battleground in August 1942 was to be the island of New Guinea, which held a unique position during WWII.
The Japanese had already captured the Australian territories of New Guinea and Papua, as well as the Dutch territory of western New Guinea. Allied troops, however, managed to hold onto Port Moresby itself on New Guinea.
In May 1942 the Japanese launched Operation MO. Among other objectives, they planned to attack Port Moresby by sea, along with the Allied-held island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. With those in Japanese hands, Australia would be cut off from the Allies and the Japanese grip over the South Pacific would be absolute.
That offensive resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea from 4-8 May, 1942. It was the first naval conflict in history in which no ships fired at each other. Rather, both sides used their aircraft to devastating effect. On May 8 the battle ended in the Allies’ favor, but Japan was still determined to capture Port Moresby.
So the Japanese switched tactics: rather than approach the port by sea, on July 21 they landed 2,500 troops on the beaches near Gona and Buna on northeast Papua, and set off on the Kokoda Track over the Owen Stanley Range.
Despite the Australians’ best efforts, the Japanese took the Kokoda airfield on July 29. By August 9, the town of Kokoda had fallen, as did Deniki shortly after. Isurava was next.
The Australian forces had been devastated during the campaign. Along with the constant fighting, jungle diseases decimated their ranks. Planes for aerial resupply were few, and a drop was made almost impossible because of the thick canopy of trees.
Also, the soldiers had no heavy weapons, as it was thought they would be too cumbersome to carry in the thick jungle terrain. The Japanese, however, had no such qualms, giving them an advantage.
With the fall of Deniki, the Australians retreated, established their headquarters on a hilltop above Isurava, and dug in. The fighting resumed there on August 26.
The arrival of the 2/14th on the 26th and 27th relieved the exhausted 39th Battalion and equalized the numbers of Australian and Japanese troops near Isurava.
The Japanese launched a major offensive on the 27th, even breaking the Australian line at one point before being beaten back.
On August 29th, the Japanese broke through the Australian right flank and began pushing them back, threatening to cut off the troops on the flanks from their headquarters. The firing was so intense that the jungle was stripped of its vegetation in minutes.
By then, most of the men in Kingsbury’s unit had been killed, so he and Avery volunteered to join a group that was preparing for a counterattack.
Kingsbury took a Bren light machine gun from an incapacitated soldier and yelled to the others, “Follow me! We can turn them back!” The Japanese were caught off guard as the fierce Australian juggernaut charged directly at them.
According to Kingsbury’s Victoria Cross citation, “He rushed forward firing his Bren Gun from the hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy.”
More succinctly, according to Avery who had followed right on his heels of his childhood friend, “he just mowed them down.”
Kingsbury has been credited with shooting 30 Japanese, inspiring the rest of the attack party to press forward and turn the tide of the battle, before a Japanese sniper shot him. Side by side to the end, Avery carried his best friend to the medical station, but Kingsbury was dead by the time they got there.
Military historians believe that had it not been for Kingsbury, the Japanese could have destroyed the Australians.
The battle ultimately ended in the Australians’ defeat, but Kingsbury’s charge made it possible for them to regain their right flank, then regroup and withdraw that night rather than be overrun by the enemy.
For his “coolness, determination and devotion to duty in the face of great odds,” Kingsbury was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Great Britain’s highest military award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.