The Kokoda Campaign - Bert Kienzle

Contributed by Michael Hall, March 2014

 

From Molonglo to Myola

The name of Bert Kienzle is synonymous with the battle over the Kokoda Track during 1942. Born in Levuka, Fiji in 1905 he arrived in the Australian administered Papua in about 1927 where he established a rubber plantation and worked as a mine manager in the Yodda Valley near Kokoda. During the Second World War, his organisational skills helped the Australians defeat the Japanese in Papua.

Shortly after the Japanese occupied Lae on the north coast of New Guinea in March 1942 Kienzle joined the newly formed Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) and walked the Kokoda Track for the first time. As an ANGAU officer he guided the first Australian troops (B Company of the 39th Battalion) along the track to Kokoda where they arrived in mid July. He took charge of hundreds of Papuan labourers whom he organised on the line of communications along the track. To walk the track would take at least a week. Kienzle realised that a relay system, where the Papuan carriers worked stages of the track rather than the length of the track, was the most efficient use of their labour. The shorter the distances over which the Papuans worked meant that they carried less rations for themselves and more of the supplies and equipment that the soldiers needed for fighting.

Kienzle established staging points along the track at Ioribaiwa, Nauro, Efogi, Kagi, Eora Creek and Deniki, but the most important depot he established was at a place he called Myola near the top of the Owen Stanley Range. The Papuans regarded the place as taboo, but Kienzle recognised the potential of its dry lake beds and open spaces. Myola was the logistical turning point in the Kokoda campaign as it was the only place in the mountains where large quantities of supplies could be successfully air-dropped and where small planes could hope to land. It was the ability to supply troops in the remote jungle of the rugged Owen Stanley Range that helped determine the outcome of the battle over the Kokoda Track.

Less well known than his role in Papua is Kienzle’s connection to Canberra. Kienzle’s father Alfred, German by birth but a naturalised British citizen, was a merchant in Fiji when Bert was born. His mother died when he was young and his father later married an Australian. When World War 1 began Alfred Kienzle was interned as an ‘alien’ and sent to Trial Bay near Kempsey. When he was joined by his family, including Bert, they were sent to the internment camp at Bourke in outback New South Wales. Conditions there were harsh and when the Molonglo Camp was built near Canberra for internees from China who never arrived, the families at Bourke were transferred there in May 1918.

Bert Kienzle turned thirteen just before he and his family arrived at Molonglo. He and the other children were able to attend school, play sport and swim and picnic by the Molonglo River. There was a library and community hall with a piano bought by the internees, who also set up a theatre and held dances and concerts. They lived in draughty wooden huts which could not keep out the southerly winds off the Snowy Mountains, but still their accommodation was better than that of most new arrivals in Canberra who lived in humpies and tents.

Despite the armistice of 11 November 1918 the internees at Molonglo were not immediately released. Kienzle spent just over a year in Canberra as it would take until 22 May 1919 before he was allowed to leave Molonglo. Today the site of the Molonglo Camp is covered by the suburb of Fyshwick.

 

Sources

Robyn Kienzle, ‘The Architect of Kokoda’, 2011

Alan Foskett, ‘The Molonglo Mystery’, 2006 (p.44)

Charles Daley, ‘As I Recall’, 1994 (p.134)

Raymond Paull, ‘The Retreat from Kokoda: The Australian Campaign in New Guinea 1942, 1983