1st Independent Company

The 1st Independent Company was formed in June 1941 and the following month, with the threat of war with Japan looming, it was sent to Kavieng, New Ireland. The company was based here at Kavieng, where it was to protect the airfield, but sections were also sent to Namatanai in central New Ireland, Vila in the New Hebrides, Tulagi on Guadalcanal, Buka Passage in Bougainville, and Lorengau on Manus Island to act as observers.

In the event of an invasion, the company’s role, as understood by Major James Edmonds-Wilson, the officer commanding, was to resist the enemy long enough so that the airfield could be damaged and other military instillations, such as fuel dumps, could be destroyed. The company was to then withdrawal to bases further south where they could wage a guerrilla war. The company soon found itself at war.

On 21 January about sixty Japanese aircraft, including bombers, dive bombers, and fighters, attacked Kavieng. The commandos’ shot down a number of aircraft, but the schooner, the Induna Star, which was the company’s only means of escape, had also been damaged. Despite this though, the schooner managed to sail to Kaut. Meanwhile, the commandos started to withdrawal over land to Sook. Later that day the Australians received a message that a Japanese naval force of an aircraft carrier and six cruisers was approaching New Britain. The Japanese landed in the early morning the next day.

As the lead Japanese troops reached the airfield, there was some fighting as the Australians blew the airfield and supply dump. The Japanese landed between 3 000 and 4 000 troops, hopelessly outnumbered, those commandos still fighting around Kavieng fell back to Sook, but not all of them made it. Some were captured. On 28 January Wilson gather his men and moved to Kaut where they repaired the Induna Star. Wilson intended sailing down the coast at night and hoped to reach the east coast of New Britain. By 31 January they had reached Kalili Harbour, but by then, Wilson learnt that the fighting on New Britain was over and that the Japanese occupied Rabaul. Wilson decided to sail for Port Moresby, but on 2 February the schooner was sighted by a Japanese plane which strafed and bombed them - destroying the lifeboat and causing a number of casualties. The Induna Star was now taking on water and Wilson considered any further resistance useless.

The Australians were instructed to sail to Rabaul, with the Induna Star being escorted by Japanese aircraft until it was met by a Japanese destroyer. Thereafter, the Australians were transferred to the destroyer and became prisoners of war. After a few months at Rabaul, the officers were separated from their NCOs and men, and the officers were taken to Japan where they remained in captivity for the rest of the war. The NCOs and men had a much sadder fate.

At the end of June, these men, along with the 2/22nd Battalion and other members of Lark Force, how had been captured on New Britain, and about 200 civilians, boarded the Japanese passenger ship Montevideo Maru. There were between 1 050 and 1053 prisoners were aboard. Unescorted by other Japanese ships, the Montevideo Maru sailed from Rabaul on 22 June, but on 1 July the ship was sighted by an American submarine, the Sturgeon, off the coast of the Luzon, in the Philippines. Firing its torpedos, the Sturgeon sunk the Montevideo Maru. Only a handful of the Japan crew were rescued. None of the prisoners survived. All 133 men from the independent company who were aboard the Montevideo Maru were either killed or drowned.

Those sections that had not been with the main group at Kavieng, those who had been sent to Vila, Tulagi, Buka, and Lorengau, faired better. Throughout 1942 these men worked with the coast watchers, reporting Japanese troop movements, until they were either evacuated or escaped from their various locations throughout 1942. Later during the year, one of these sections fought along side the 2/5th Independent Company as part of Kanga Force, in New Guinea. But the 1st Independent Company was not reformed and its survivors were subsequently transferred to other commando units.

Glossary

Battle Honours

  • nil

Casualties

  • 142 died

For more information please see the Roll of Honour and Second World War Nominal Roll (external website) databases.

Decorations

  • 1 MC

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

Collection Items

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References

  • AWM113/11/2/36: War Diary compiled form notes covering period 21 January 1942 to 2 February 1942
  • AWM52/25/3/1: 2/1 Independent Company war diary
  • McNab, Alexander (Sandy), We were the first : the unit history of no 1 independent company, (Loftus, N.S.W. : Australian Military History Publications, 1998)