A new illustrated history of the Pacific War tells the remarkable story of Australian independent companies and commando squadrons at war with Japan. By Karl James
The Nips were on the run, alright, but it was not the case of headlong flight. As always they were prepared to die and contest grimly at every clear space of track where they had a field of fire
Private John Tozer, 2/6th Independent Company
The 21-year-old Tozer was the son of a decorated First World War veteran, and had already served in the Middle East when he volunteered for the 2/6th Independent Company. When his company charged the villages of Kaiapit, in New Guinea, Tozer survived a hail of Japanese bullets, but the next day he was shot in the chest by a Japanese rifleman only ten metres away. Knocked off his feet, the young Western Australian recalled feeling as if a sledgehammer had belted him. When he regained his composure he was surprised to still be alive. The bullet had struck his identity disk, forcing it into his breastbone as the bullet ricocheted across his chest, leaving a nasty if superficial burn. Another Australian lay next to him on the ground, shot through the neck and killed almost immediately.
On 19 September 1943, with little prior reconnaissance or patrolling, the 2/6th Independent Company made a daring attack on the cluster of villages that made up Kaiapit. The company swept through the first village in ten minutes, clearing pits and huts to overwhelm the Japanese defenders: the company’s commander reported that they ‘went in hard and the enemy panicked’. Having secured the first village, the 2/6th dug in and that night repelled several Japanese thrusts. The next morning the Australians captured the remaining villages and the airfield. It was a key moment in the vast Allied offensive in New Guinea. (see Wartime no. 64.) Kaiapit’s seizure opened up the Markham Valley for the Australian advance to the lower reaches of the Ramu Valley. It was one of the most significant actions conducted by Australian independent companies during the Second World War. Private Tozer survived the action and was later commissioned. He was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches in 1945 and entered politics later in life. It is likely that few people today would be aware that the Australian independent companies that served during the Second World War were the precursors to Australia’s elite special forces of today.
In 1940 the British army formed commando units to raid, conduct sabotage and gather information in German-occupied Europe. A small British military mission was sent to Australia to establish similar units in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and the first of eight Australian independent companies was raised in 1941. Wearing their unique double-diamond-shaped unit colour patches on their hatbands and shoulders, each independent company contained some 290 officers and men. In 1943 the companies were redesignated cavalry (commando) squadrons, later just commando squadrons. Four additional commando squadrons were established during 1944.
Made famous in part by Damien Parer’s wartime newsreel The Men of Timor (1942), the almost year-long guerrilla war fought by Sparrow Force’s No. 2 Independent Company in Timor has been widely praised. The film’s opening titles note that, as the war swept past them, the Australians “went on fighting”, harrying the Japanese with guerrilla warfare in ‘one of the imperishable stories of this gigantic world catastrophe’. The story of the bearded men of Timor, who were later joined by the 2/4th Independent Company, is arguably the most well-known episode in the history of Australian independent companies
These exploits have often been told and celebrated, but the guerrilla war on Timor was not typical. From the tragic loss suffered to No. 1 Independent Company as prisoners of the Japanese on the Montevideo Maru to the celebrated defiance on Timor in 1942, each independent company later commando squadron was involved in myriad wartime experiences. It was in the vastness of New Guinea’s jungles that the independent companies came into their own, thinly deployed on the flanks of the main force, carrying out reconnaissance, conducting raids and harassing the Japanese. By the war’s end in 1945 the AIF had commando squadrons in action in New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo.
During the course of the war the independent company’s role evolved: conceived for the European war, focused on raids and guerrilla warfare, it became akin to the traditional role of cavalry, carrying out reconnaissance on the flank of a main force. This change reflects the nature of the war in the Pacific – especially in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – where information was more effective than sabotage. Yet even as late as 1945 commando squadrons could be misused or underemployed, assigned to roles better suited to infantry battalions. The Australian independent companies and commando squadrons achieved their most impressive results when wielded by senior commanders who understood both the capabilities and limitations of these units.
Drawing on the Australian War Memorial’s rich collection, Double diamonds: Australian commandos in the Pacific War, 1941–45 tells the stories of some of the men who served in the independent companies and commando squadrons.
Dr Karl James is a Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, and the author of Double diamonds: Australian commandos in the Pacific War, 1941–45 (2016).
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