An inadeqquate force: Neville Threlfall
Much has been written lately about the fall of Rabaul in January 1942 and the consequent tragic loss of life when over a thousand prisoners went down in the prison ship Montevideo Maru. These are believed to have included 845 soldier POWs, members of the Rabaul garrison known as Lark Force. The question has been raised and discussed: why did the Australian Government, under PM John Curtin, leave Lark Force in Rabaul after Pearl Harbour, when it was manifestly inadequate to withstand an attack of the magnitude which the Japanese were likely to bring against it?
But nothing has been raised about the reasons why an earlier Government—that of Robert G. Menzies, PM from 26 April 1939 to 29 August 1941—originally sent Lark Force to Rabaul, and what was its true reason for being there. The files in the Australian War Memorial reveal a surprising story, and one in which military blunders of supply and training are ironically mixed with flashes of humour.
The New Guinea Administration and the inhabitants of Rabaul began their own defence measures late in 1939. At that time the main concern was the possibility of German raiding vessels landing armed sailors to destroy communications facilities (as the Australians had done in August 1914), or even bombarding the town. A volunteer military force, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, was quickly formed to oppose any armed landing party, and deep gullies on the slopes of Namanula Hill were cleared out and equipped with shelters, water tanks and supply depots, to provide a refuge for the townsfolk in case of a bombardment. In the event, German raiders passed through New Ireland waters in December 1940 but made no attack on Rabaul.
But there was another source of potential danger. Japan was known to have built up military bases in the Micronesian islands to the north of New Guinea, which Japan had received under League of Nations mandate after World War 1. The terms of the mandate forbade military installations except for defence, but in the early 1930s Japan had left the League and annexed the islands, treating them as outright possessions. Both in Australia and in Rabaul, there was concern as to what Japanese intentions might be.
In October 1940, the CO of the NGVR and senior military officer in the Mandated Territory was Ross Field, the Director of Public Works in the Administration. In that month Field wrote to military HQ in Port Moresby pointing out the unsatisfactory state of affairs in Rabaul. The NGVR had rifles for drill, but no ammunition for practice or combat. The police force had rifles and ammunition, but were legally prohibited from taking part in military activities. He requested ammunition for the NGVR, and suggested that a defence force be raised among indigenous and Chinese residents of the Territory.
In a further letter Field reviewed the possibility of a large-scale attack on Rabaul. If the military authorities felt that this could not be resisted, the Administration should be warned of this and advised to prepare evacuation plans for civilians and for removing or destroying supplies and records. Depots of food, water and ammunition should be placed inland, for the use of defenders withdrawing from the town. All this was sound advice; but it fell on deaf ears.
Military authorities in Australia took action in 1941, but it was not because of Field’s advice. The Chiefs of Staff of the Australian Armed Forces decided that the RAAF should establish a reconnaissance base as far north as possible, to monitor any southward movements of Japanese forces in Micronesia. Rabaul was the chosen site for this, but the heads of the RAAF insisted that their planes and personnel must have a military garrison to protect them.
It was decided to send a battalion group (an infantry battalion with supporting specialist units) to protect the RAAF base. A small advance party arrived in Rabaul in early March 1941 to prepare the camp for the main force, which arrived in March and April. This comprised the 2/22nd Battalion of the 2nd AIF, with units of the Army Service Corps and the Army Medical Corps Members of Signals, Engineers and Artillery units came later. The whole group was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Carr and was code-named “Lark Force”.
The sight of over a thousand soldiers coming to Rabaul was reassuring to the town’s residents and to the Administration, as they assumed that this was for their defence. But Carr, who was now the senior military officer in the Territory, knew otherwise. He had quickly realized that the force under his command was too small and lacked the equipment to defend Rabaul and the nearby landing beaches against any sizeable attacking force; and said this in a situation report which he sent to Port Moresby in April.
It was passed on to the military authorities in Australia, and their reply reached him at the end of May. He was told that Lark Force’s role was not to defend the port and town of Rabaul! Its role was only to defend “the fixed defences of Rabaul and the RAAF Advanced Operational Base”.
The “fixed defences” comprised only two old 15cm guns which had been sent to Rabaul but were not at that time set in position: they were later placed at Praed Point.
No RAAF base had yet been established; an occasional visit by a PBY Catalina flyingboat for refuelling during reconnaissance was the only sign of the Air Force’s presence in the area. The Rabaul townsfolk must therefore be excused for thinking that Lark Force was there for their benefit. Military discipline would have prevented Carr from telling them otherwise. But his requests for additional arms and equipment were ignored, or only fulfilled in dribs and drabs months later, He was even refused a supply of blank rifle ammunition, which he requested to enable the troops to practice combat more realistically.
The Menzies Government was now under increasing difficulties in Australia.
In August 1941 Arthur Fadden succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister, but only held office for forty days. These distracting moves in Australian politics came at a bad time, just when the US Government was taking an interest in Rabaul’s military potential. During 1941 the Japanese had moved armed forces into French Indo-China, threatening Malaya, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. It seemed good sense to develop United States and Australian defence co-operation in the South Pacific. The US service chiefs looked at Rabaul’s superb harbour as a good location for a naval base. Agreement was reached for the US to supply the necessary equipment for this, and Australia agreed to upgrade the Vunakanau airfield to take US heavy bombers on their way to and from the Philippines. A team of US officers visited Rabaul in November 1941, but an element of farce entered into their discussions with the head of Lark Force when a heavily sealed envelope, just delivered by air, was brought to him. Apologising for the interruption, he broke it open, paused, then read the contents aloud: “Upon receipt of this you will proceed with the construction of six pan latrines according to the enclosed specifications”.
By this time Lark Force had a new CO: Colonel J. J. Scanlan, a veteran of the trench warfare of World War 1. His plan for defence was to hold fixed positions at the likely landing beaches. When it was suggested that supplies should be placed inland to provide for a fighting withdrawal and bush warfare, he condemned it as a defeatist suggestion, and boasted that “Rabaul will be defended to the last man. There will be no surrender.” There was no attempt to give the soldiers any knowledge of conditions inland and of bushcraft, nor of relations with the New Guinean people. Nor was there any discussion with Administration officials of preparations for evacuation or of demolition of vital supplies and installations. The civil authorities found this very frustrating.
John Curtin became Prime Minister of Australia on 7 October 1941, inheriting domestic problems and the responsibility for widespread Australian forces in the Middle East, Malaya and the Pacific Islands. The promise of a US naval base at Rabaul may have seemed an assurance of that area’s safety. But there was no mention of US ground troops being stationed there. By the first week in December Scanlan had taken a more realistic view of the situation. RAAF planes had come at last: four Hudson bombers, later to be joined by ten Wirraways: armed reconnaissance planes which would be no match for modern fighters. At last Lark Force had an active air base to defend. But Scanlan wrote a review claiming that for adequate defence against an attack on the scale that could be expected, at least four thousand infantry would be needed, together with trucks to rush them to threatened points; plus field artillery, anti-tank guns, three more coastal batteries and twenty armoured cars. He dated this review 5 December 1941 and dispatched it to higher authorities; but on that date a Japanese carrier-based strike force was already moving towards the Hawaiian Islands.
The successful Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and on the Philippines put an abrupt end to US plans to use Rabaul as a naval base or as a staging point for their aircraft. The Australian War Cabinet was left alone to face a hard decision. It lacked the troops and weaponry to reinforce Rabaul as Scanlan declared necessary. To withdraw Lark Force and the RAAF planes would make a present to the Japanese of a valuable site for their military purposes, and would be bad for morale in Australia and for the Dutch ally in the East Indies. The choice was made: to leave what was plainly an inadequate force in place, so that if the Japanese wanted Rabaul they would have to fight for it.
Although Curtin is usually held responsible for this decision, it was made on the advice of the Chiefs of Staff of Australia’s armed services, and they too must take their share of the responsibility. And they were responsible for the inadequate equipment of Lark Force, and the failure to respond to the appeals of Carr and Scanlan.
Hasty arrangements were made to evacuate women and children of European race, by sea and later by air. Apart from a few invalids, civilian men were not considered; and Rabaul’s Asian population were left to their own devices. (Ironically, the only Asians sent away to safety in Australia were Japanese internees.)
Prior to 8 December 1941, the reconnaissance patrols of the Catalinas and the Hudsons had only gone as far as the Equator, the boundary of the Mandated Territory with Japan’s Micronesian possessions. But with the outbreak of war with Japan, patrols were extended further north, to Kapingamarangi Atoll, over eight hundred kilometres north of Rabaul, and even further to the major Japanese base of Truk in the Caroline Islands. Installations and supply dumps observed at Kapingamarangi were obviously for war purposes, and the Hudsons bombed them regularly from 15 December onwards. Truk was too far for the Hudsons to travel with a bomb load, but one raid was launched against Truk by Catalinas. A heavy storm prevented all but one of the planes reaching Truk, but it dropped its bombs there. These raids stung the Japanese into retaliatory air raids on Rabaul from 4 January 1942 onwards, and may have accelerated the timing of their invasion of New Ireland and New Britain.
So, neither reinforced nor withdrawn, an inadequate force awaited the inevitable onslaught.