In the clearing where Potts had established his headquarters, the sentries heard no movement on the steep hillside during the night, and the customary stand-to before first light passed without incident. Potts and his staff heard the crescendo of fire when Horii redoubled his assault against Cooper’s front. They took mental note of its onset, received Cooper’s report, and went about their duties.
Known among other things for his regular personal habits, Potts walked across the clearing soon after dawn to a newly excavated pit near the jungle’s edge. A sentry – Pte. Gill, one of the “Old and Bold” of the Guard Platoon – manned a Bren-gun post on the forward slope of the knoll overlooking the point where the track broke from the jungle saddle. The two men exchanged the pleasantries of the morning.
Returning after a few minutes, Potts had barely reached the roofless shack when a sudden shot rang out across the clearing. He turned to see the sentry fall. Alert, armed and ready in an instant, Potts and his staff scanned the clearing for the enemy, asking, “What happened?” “Where are they?” No fusillade followed. The dead man lay sprawled over the shallow hole of his post. The Australians listened intently for evidence of the enemy’s presence – the tell-tale locking of a rifle-bolt, the crack of a twig. Nothing stirred.
For the first time since the campaign began, the enemy’s tactics, the unprecedented announcement of their proximity, took Potts and his staff unawares. The Australians had become accustomed to an onslaught from the enemy’s first shot. The silence in the clearing mystified them.
Captured records suggest that it was 1st Lieutenant Kamimura, instructed to locate the Australians’ rear, who occupied the top of the ridge at the northern end of the clearing. Awaiting Sakamoto and his Machine-gun Company for an attack at 5.30 a.m., Kamimura may not have suspected at first the presence of the small group on the opposite side of the knoll, and the Japanese who shot Gill probably did so on impulse. Potts will never know how close he came to death on his walk to and from the latrine, of being lined up in the sights of the Japanese marksman who chose instead to shoot Gill.
Potts’ Liaison Officer, Lieutenant Cairns, dissipated the momentary uncertainty. Taking Corporal Beveridge, of the Brigade Transport Platoon, Cairns crossed the clearing. The two men had passed Gill’s post on the knoll and were approaching the north-western corner when Beveridge said quietly, “Look, there’s a Jap there now.” “Give him a grenade,” Cairns replied. At the same time, he saw the Japanese in the shadows, his light machine-gun aimed at them and his finger curling around the trigger. He called, “Look out,” and cast himself flat in the grass, escaping the burst of fire which echoed his words. The grenade had left Beveridge’s fingers when the same burst crumpled him. In the next instant, the grenade killed the enemy and destroyed his gun.
Cairns, his rifle out of reach, backed away without guessing that Beveridge was mortally wounded. Then, realizing that the Corporal had been hit, he circled, saw his body, and returned to retrieve it. His outstretched hand was barely its own breadth from Beveridge’s ankle when a Japanese leapt from the scrub and charged down upon him. Cairns scrambled to his feet and ran, somewhat blindly, until a deafening roar startled him and he beheld Lieutenant Burnham Fraser, his fellow Liaison Officer, armed with the cherished marksman’s rifle which invariably accompanied him. “Couldn’t miss him,” said Fraser triumphantly.
This happened on 8 September 1942 at a point in the Kokoda campaign when the Australians were engaged in a fighting withdrawal against overwhelming Japanese forces.
Brigadier Arnold Potts (WX700102) was born on the Isle of Man on 16 September 1896, and died on 1 January 1968, aged 71 years.
Private John Gill (NX11728) was born in England, enlisted in March 1940, was posted to the Headquarters Guard Battalion, and was killed in action this day in September 1942.
Lieutenant Norman Cairns (VX29956) was born on 26 October 1916 in Melbourne, Australia, and was discharged on 9 October 1945.
Corporal Cyril Beveridge(VX14989 ) was born in Carlton, Victoria on 11 October 1912, enlisted in May 1940, was posted to HQ 21 Australian Infantry Brigade and was killed in action this day in September 1942.
Lieutenant Burnham Fraser (VX8349) was born in London, England on 28 February 1901, enlisted in May 1940, and was discharged on 30 October 1943.