Remembering 1942: The defence of the 'Malay barrier'
Rabaul and Ambon, January 1942
Presented by Peter Stanley on Saturday 26 January 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial. (AWM PASU0168)
Download to the talk - 10:35 min (2.5Mb Mp3)
Ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon and welcome to the Australian War Memorial. My name is Peter Stanley and it's my privilege to be the Memorial's Principal Historian. This presentation is one of a series of short 'Roll of Honour talks' which the Memorial has planned for this year particularly to mark in an appropriate tone the sixtieth anniversary of the many significant events of 1942. They are not intended to debate the many points of contention that arise for many of the events of 1942. They provide an historical context to our remembrance of those who died in these events. Today's talk deals with the defeats of New Britain and Ambon in January 1942.
The Victorian RSL magazine, Mufti, published an article in 1954 headed, 'Forget the Bad, Remember the Good'. It recorded that twenty people had attended a ceremony at the cenotaph to remember the twelfth anniversary of the fall of Rabaul. The anonymous writer was not writing to lament that so few people turned out on this day: he was arguing that the anniversary should not have been marked at all. 'Defeats', he wrote, 'are depressing enough … without dwelling on them'. He urged that if Rabaul was to be remembered at all it should be on the anniversary of its 'recapture' in 1945. (Rabaul was of course, not recaptured but was re-occupied after the Japanese surrender.)
Today we gather in a very different mood. We stand here by the Roll of Honour to remember those who died in the defence of New Britain and Ambon and in the aftermath of those defeats. We do so not with any sense of embarrassment but with a profound sympathy for those who suffered and died during the darkest days of the Second World War in south-east Asia.
Sixty years ago Australian forces had entered the war against Japan in earnest. The RAAF had fought from the first hours of the Japanese invasion of Malaya. From 14 January two brigades of the 8th Division had just entered action in Johore. The division's other three infantry battalions were distributed in an arc across Australia's north, at Ambon, Timor and on New Britain. They protected the northern-most Australian territory of New Guinea and the airfields linking Australia with Allied territory in south-east Asia.
These small forces were named after various species of birds. From west to east the main forces were: Sparrow Force on Timor, Gull Force on Ambon, Lark Force on New Britain. There will always be debate over the wisdom of the strategy of garrisoning what was grandly called the 'Malay barrier' with such small forces. Typically they were held by 'battalion groups' formed around an infantry battalion supported by artillery and other units and some RAAF squadrons. On Ambon and Timor Netherlands East Indies troops joined the defence. These forces proved to be far too small to hold the larger Japanese forces sent against them.
The strategic problem was in the circumstances insoluble. The airfields had to be protected; the actual Japanese capability was under-rated; the possibility of sending larger forces was remote. The best that the defenders could do was to make the Japanese fight for objectives they would certainly be able to take.
The inevitable tragedy of the Malay barrier unfolded in a series of battles sixty years ago. Today, on the anniversary of the fall of Rabaul we remember the consequences of the bird forces. I will briefly outline the events and their aftermath.
In a matter of days each of these island garrisons would be attacked and subdued in turn.
New Britain, located just a few hundred kilometers south of the Japanese mandate territories in the Pacific, became the first Australian territory to be attacked by the Japanese. On 23 January a Japanese force several times larger than the defenders and supported by battleships and aircraft carriers landed near Rabaul, New Britain's tiny capital. The RAAF's small and under-equipped defending squadron took on the more numerous and better-equipped Japanese aircraft, with heavy losses. The signal sent by Wing Commander J.M. Lerew to Air Force Headquarters in Melbourne before taking off - 'Those who are about to die salute you' - testifies to the fatalist courage of RAAF aircrew fighting what all knew to be a losing battle.
Though contesting the Japanese landings the 2/22nd Battalion could not stop the attack. Its members were ordered to disperse and make their way to safety as best they could. Unfortunately nothing had been done to prepare for such an escape. As the Japanese occupied Rabaul, including Australian civilians and six army nurses, parties of soldiers made their way southwards through the jungle of New Britain.
The ordeal of the escape from New Britain is an epic story of endurance, heroism, luck and, for about 400 men, survival. For almost all of the Australians taken on New Britain, however, tragedy was to follow.
A large party of those fleeing was taken by the Japanese near Tol plantation, on New Britain's east coast. There about 130 of them were killed, in what became known as the Tol massacre. The names of those men of the 2/22nd Battalion are on this Roll of Honour. Of those captured and brought into Rabaul further tragedy was to follow. A few of the prisoners, including the nurses, were taken separately to Japan and held for the rest of the war. Incredibly, all the nurses were liberated in 1945: thin, ill, but alive. Almost none of over a thousand military prisoners and civilian internees, however, would survive.
In June 1942 they were taken aboard a ship, the Montevideo Maru bound for Japan. It was unmarked and the Allies had no idea that it was carrying prisoners of war. On 1 July 1942, in the South China Sea, an American submarine torpedoed the Montevideo Maru. All of the 1,050 Australians on board were lost in the greatest single maritime tragedy in Australian history.
The peculiar cruelty of this disaster was not that it occurred inadvertently at the hands of Allied submariners. Rather, it was that these men's fate was unknown at the time, and remained unknown for years. Not until well after the war's end were their deaths confirmed. The fears and unrealised hopes of their families can well be imagined, an ordeal traced with compassion by Margaret Reeson in her recent book, A Very Long War. Again, many of those who died aboard the Montevideo Maru - the soldiers at least - appear here on the Roll of Honour.
As the anonymous writer in Mufti had written, Rabaul was at length liberated by Australian troops, in 1945. In the meantime the island was subjected to a long and gruelling occupation. Allied troops fought an intelligent and economical campaign, penning up over 90,000 Japanese defenders in the Gazelle Peninsula. In the meantime directly or indirectly the Japanese occupation caused the deaths of as many of New Britain's people as Australia lost in the entire war.
A few days after the fall of Rabaul, in the last days of January 1942, a Japanese task force approached another of the island garrisons: Ambon, held by Gull Force, mostly comprising the 2/21st Battalion.
Again the same pattern can be seen. A large Japanese force, supported by aircraft carriers, landed in overwhelming strength, beginning on 31 January. After a brief fight the defenders realised the futility of further resistance and surrendered. As on New Britain, though relatively few men were lost in the island's defence, an atrocity occurred in the aftermath of defeat.
Several hundred Australians had surrendered on Laha airstrip, across Ambon Bay from the town. Soon after the battle, but continuing at intervals for nearly a fortnight, the prisoners taken at Laha were killed. Over 300 died: a fragment of the wire used to bind the wrists of one victim can be seen in the galleries below us. The Laha massacre was the largest of the atrocities committed against captured Allied troops in 1942. There are several possible reasons for the massacre but it has never been fully explained.
Gull Force's survivors went into captivity. Their ordeal has been traced in detail by Professor Joan Beaumont's Gull Force on Ambon, among several other works. They were to be held on isolated islands by captors indifferent to their fate and led by an Australian officer unequal to the terrible burden of his responsibility. They suffered an ordeal and a death rate second only to the horrors of Sandakan, first on Ambon and then after many were sent to the island of Hainan late in 1942. Three-quarters of the Australians captured on Ambon died before the war's end. Of the 582 who remained on Ambon 405 died. They died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and one of the most brutal regimes among camps in which bashings were routine.
All of these men's names are on this Roll of Honour. We remember all of them today.
The disasters which befell Australians and their Dutch and indigenous allies in the defence of the mis-named Malay barrier were only the first of a string of defeats which Australians faced in 1942. Exactly sixty years after it is fitting in this place above all others we should remember them and those to whom they brought so much suffering.