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Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 2


The Battles for Kokoda Plateau: Three weeks of hell defending the Owen Stanley Ranges

David W Cameron

Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2020

Reviewed by Kate Tollenaar

Published online: 3 December 2020


The Australian experience in the Second World War features many myths, and in the last 20 years, Kokoda has grown in significance in Australian popular cultural memory. The story of the battle to hold the Kokoda Plateau has been the focus of many recent works, with over nine books published since 2000 and many articles debating the place of Kokoda in Australia’s military history and remembrance. The movie Kokoda was released in 2006, introducing the story to a new generation. Many Australians walk the Kokoda Track each year and this experience is often framed in the language of pilgrimage.

David W Cameron’s The Battles for Kokoda Plateau is a contribution to the field that focuses on individual truth and much of the account is drawn from letters and diaries. After capturing Singapore in early 1942, Japanese forces landed at Papua New Guinea in July 1942, not to establish a base from which to invade Australia as was thought at the time but with the intent to isolate Australia and New Zealand from the United States. The Japanese intended to capture Kokoda and the airstrip and then advance overland to capture Port Moresby. Over the next five months, Japanese forces advanced along the Kokoda Track, fighting Australian and Papuan forces, until they were defeated at Oivi-Gorari in November 1942.

The Battles for Kokoda Plateau, however, recounts the events of three weeks of the battle between July and August 1942, when the 39th Battalion, supported by 1st Papuan Infantry Battalion and Royal Papuan Constabulary fought the Japanese I/144th Battalion. These events are divided chronologically into five chapters: Preparation, Invasion, the First and Second Battles for Kokoda and Lines of Escape. This detailed account illuminates one part of the theatre which General Sir Thomas Blamey and General Douglas Macarthur oversaw.

The Battles follows the same approach of drawing on unpublished first-hand accounts focused on particular timeframe that Cameron’s has used in some of his previous works such as on the battle for Lone Pine at Gallipoli in the First World War and the Battle of Long Tan in the Vietnam War. This allows for a deep dive into the actions and reactions of individuals that were part of these events.

The reader follows the experience of several commanders, senior non-commissioned officers, a medical officer, an American airman and Australian missionaries who move along the Kokoda Track. The narrative weighs heavily on several narrators, but this does not detract from a sense of the broader experience. Relying on individual letters written during the period, or recollections afterwards, the account bring a sense of immediacy to their experience. Wanting to know what happens to these people compels the reader to read on.

David Cameron writes about the human experience of war, which makes this account easy to read without the need to decipher dense tactical details or force dispositions. Cameron focuses on the experience of these men and women in arduous conditions, battling the infamous terrain over the Owen Stanley Ranges, which all believed impassable, in difficult weather and coping with disease, including dysentery and cholera, and critical shortages of ammunition and food.

Read the full article as a pdf

To cite this article:

Documentary-note: K Tollenaar, ‘Review of “The Battle for Kokoda Plateau: Three weeks of hell defending the Owen Stanley Ranges” by David W Cameron’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2020, 2(2):283-285

Author-Date (Harvard): Tollenaar, K., 2020. ‘Review of “The Battle for Kokoda Plateau: Three weeks of hell defending the Owen Stanley Ranges” by David W Cameron’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2(2), 283-285. Available at <>