Book Review – The Third Force: ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-1946, by Alan Powell

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What happens when you simultaneously task a military unit with civil administration, security force capacity building, long-range reconnaissance, indigenous labour recruitment, operational-level logistics provision, and land-centric combat?

If you answered “fail” without a second thought, then read on.

Assuming the above is possible, what if I asked you who could achieve such a feat?

If you answered, “Only a major superpower with unlimited ISR platforms, autonomous systems, quantum computing, an impenetrable line of supply, and only against a weak adversary – certainly not Australia,” then read on.

What if I asked you whether it was possible despite mountainous jungle, linguistic diversity, and without major facilities like permanent roads, major airports, and voluminous seaports?

If you are in disbelief, then this book is for you.

Alan Powell’s The Third Force: ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-1946 answers the above questions. Powell’s concise yet thorough work explores the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit’s (ANGAU) trials and tribulations, from their chaotic founding amid territorial anarchy to their disbandment following the completion of the Second World War. [1] Powell determines that ANGAU contributed to Allied regional success in the New Guinea campaign as the “third force” astride the US and Australian conventional combat elements.

Powell initially orients the reader through a brief synopsis of the preceding history and physical and human terrain challenges in the Territory of Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Powell subsequently describes the foundation of ANGAU by Major General Basil Morris, including the Australian Civil Administration’s handover to ANGAU on 14 February 1942. Powell paints this transition point as rife with indigenous policing and military unit desertions, Australian troop-led looting, civil facility vandalism, and Japanese air attack – not to mention the disaster unfolding at Rabaul beckoning ANGAU succour.

This work’s first strength is Powell’s capture of competing pressures. ANGAU’s simultaneous Civil Affairs (CA), logistics, and combat tasks impeded each other for ANGAUs entire existence. ANGAU’s struggle with main and supporting effort prioritisation, and resource apportionment to several competing objectives, forewarns modern military commanders to understand capacity, build and weight main effort appropriately, and rationalise risk to force versus risk to mission. Field grade officers should find value in this section as a tool for Mission Analysis instruction; ANGAU’s competing demands during the Kokoda Campaign should force subordinates to rationalise higher commander’s intent, essential tasks, and proposed mission statements.

Powell’s second section summarises ANGAU’s contribution to the early campaigns (Chapter 2:1942), followed by the latter (Chapter 3: 1943-45). Herein, Powell details the mechanics of ANGAU’s tactical and operational activities supporting the conventional Allied campaigns. Consequently, Powell’s chronology addresses several challenges: leadership in isolation, non-combat casualty management with limited support, shared operational area management with multinational forces, inconsistent logistics due to enemy activity, a fluctuating front impacting civil populace loyalty, and the impact of unresolved personality clashes with higher (strategic) commanders. Consequently, this section offers military practitioners practical scenarios for post-H-Hr decision exercises.

The first and second sections provide modern commanders with the book’s primary value proposition. In many ways, ANGAU replicated a middle power operating in violent competition and limited conflict. First, ANGAU’s headquarters provided incomplete governance to a state’s threatened sovereignty (a territory in this instance). [2] This section potentially mirrors future failed (or severely weakened) state operations where human and physical terrain complexity inhibits military control. Military practitioners should learn from ANGAU by understanding capability limitations and avoiding overreach. As ANGAU learnt, modern practitioners should also retain civil concerns with primacy.

Second, like a middle power operating at the invitation of a host authority, ANGAU did not have the luxury of discarding civil concerns until the campaign was over. ANGAU’s mission forced it to prioritise population support, including judicial and reconstruction support, while also providing troops for reconnaissance and combat missions. This dual requirement differs from typical civil affairs operations in the North African (post-Operation Torch) and Italian campaigns, where civil affairs units and combat forces operated independently. [3] Modern operations requiring civil affairs and indigenous security force training teams capable of limited conflict operations mimic this multi-role requirement, noting Australia’s modern dilemma of a reduced conflict warning time and, therefore, pre-conflict staging time. [4]

Third, ANGAU’s resource and prioritisation struggles remain relevant. Powell demonstrates that ANGAU fought with its fragmented training, limited reconnaissance, and limited strike capabilities, much like middle powers do in disaggregated small-unit operations. These limitations hampered ANGAU’s indigenous training and retention capacity, subdued ANGAU’s dissident group targeting, and degraded ANGAU’s relative superiority required for opportunistic enemy destruction. [5] Contemporary middle powers may struggle to deliver updated training without multiple hardened networks. Contemporary middle powers may also struggle to equip every ten-person training team with a medical drone, an armed UAS platform, a cyber operator, and a linguist. This situation naturally infers casualties and compromise. Such outcomes remain likely, regardless of technological change.

Fourth, ANGAU’s case study forewarns modern practitioners that friendly force faux pas and enemy operations equally degrade effectiveness. Powell demonstrates that ANGAU constantly grappled with indigenous loyalty and effectiveness due to questionable labour recruitment practices, potent enemy information operations, and potent enemy partnered and proxy operations. Therefore, modern forces learning from ANGAU must develop cross-cultural competence (including a baseline of psychology training) and counter information operations competence.

Last, ANGAU’s case study cautions modern practitioners against unbridled escalation. For the most part, Powell demonstrates that ANGAU successfully negotiated escalation management challenges. ANGAU’s biggest threat was Japanese conventional capabilities orienting to destroy ANGAU’s disaggregated sub-units with superior mass. ANGAU had to employ violence, but not enough to draw Japanese retaliatory escalation against it as a fighting unit. ANGAU’s struggle to balance violent and non-violent actions bears relevance for regionally based disaggregated unit operations in violent competition and limited conflict. NCOs and Officers looking for a “how-to guide” should focus on the book’s first half. However, a crucial caveat is working out what remains contemporarily palatable given ANGAU’s archaic approach to tasks such as labour recruitment. [6]

Powell’s third section revises ANGAU’s operational role and contribution to civil administration. Powell discusses the enduring role and the metamorphosis of ANGAU’s functions, providing scholars and military practitioners with valuable clues to ANGAU’s initial deficiencies. Notably, the judicial expansion of ANGAU District Officer authorities offers a helpful discussion jump-off point for military practitioners hypothesising responses to Lawfare.

The third section also infers the career soldier’s skill deficiencies. [7] Powell’s demonstration of the strengths of the ‘part-time’ or ‘new’ ANGAU members exposes general service military members to an uncomfortable hypothesis – they may not possess all the knowledge and skills future operations in violent competition demand. The ANGAU members’ pre-war employment streams (plantation owners, lawyers, civil servants, nurses, etc.) generated ANGAU an asymmetric advantage. ANGAU’s combined skills enabled small team effectiveness, accurate reconnaissance, and force sustainment. ANGAU’s structure also demonstrates that General Service Officers require more civil affairs immersion to be effective.

Powell’s final section discusses the people of ANGAU – ANGAU’s Australian, Papuan, and New Guinean vital individuals and groups. Subsequently, Powell reveals ANGAU’s challenges of multinational and interagency rapport building, training program construction and execution, healthcare management, and discipline in austere circumstances. Hence, Powell demonstrates ANGAU’s struggle for indigenous loyalty, particularly with terrain loss. Accordingly, Powell reinforces the ANGAU patrol officer’s required attributes as ‘tremendous energy and endurance, vast resourcefulness, strong nerves, courage, and stability.’ [8] This determination demonstrates that these skills, synonymous with special forces, are also baseline conventional skills required in violent competition and limited conflict. [9]

In conclusion, Powell provides readers with an exciting case study for future regional deployments or deployments in disaggregated circumstances. While the current political circumstances differ from the 1940s, Powell’s synthesis is valuable. As an aside, for those geographically unfamiliar with the terrain, keep flags or bookmarks handy on the order of battle diagrams and the book’s maps.

About the Author: Josh Higgins enjoys the study of tactics, campaigning, and strategy through the lens of past and hypothesised future conflicts. He looks forward to the Bledisloe and Webb Ellis trophies returning to Australia.


  1. The Australian hierarchy raised the military unit of ANGAU to civilly govern the Territory of Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Notwithstanding this function, ANGAU’s tasks did not stop at civil governance. ANGAU additionally assumed native Papuan and New Guinean labour recruitment, orchestrated operational-level logistics, and additionally participated in limited combat operations.
  2.  Papua and New Guinea’s territory status under Australian administration afforded some of ANGAU’s ‘freedoms. In the post-colonial age, practitioner’s do not possess these as a matter of course. Host nation cooperation is critical, and nations providing competition’s familiar security force and international engagement activities must operate within the parameters of their invitation.
  3. While CA teams were often collocated with combat forces during lodgement operations, Millen recognises that “Typically, combat units were oblivious of Civil Affairs detachments and often undermined their activities.” Raymond A. Millen, “Bury the Dead and Feed the Living: The History of Civil Affairs/Military Government in the Mediterranean and European Theatres of Operations During World War Two,” PKSOI, (U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute: 2019), 2.
  4. The luxury of replacing an advisory team with a combat one in time, with operational lift assets, is dubious, noting reduced warning timelines. Australia’s reduced warning time dilemma is not new; David Evans discusses reduced warning time as early as 1990. David Evans, A Fatal Rivalry: Australia’s Defence at Risk, (MacMillan Australia: South Melbourne, 1990), 17. 
  5. The murder of several ANGAU patrol members by natives is a poignant example of ANGAU’s inconsistencies, as is the defeat of some ANGAU patrols that attempted raids against Japanese conventional units who employed follow-up search and destroy operations. ANGAU’s relative superiority for combat victories did not transcend the tactical level.
  6. Powell refers to instances of physical violence.
  7. The soldier or officer without prior workforce experience.
  8. Alan Powell, The Third Force: ANGAU’s New Guinea War, 1942-46 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2003), 144.
  9. The ADF’s desired special forces traits are embodied with in the ADF’s recruitment media (job description) and the Special Operations Command Information Booklet. This is supported by several SOF-authored blogs and websites. The ADF’s values of service, courage, respect, integrity, and excellence, while not attributes, are synonymous with the ADF’s expectations of both conventional and special forces.