Monday, January 9, 2017

Review of Invasion Rabaul by Bruce Gamble (Zenith Press, 2006)

As Japan rattled her sabres prior to declaring war on the Allies, Australia – already mobilised for the war in Europe – sought to strengthen its defences to its North, creating a shield across the islands of Papua New Guinea.  One of those islands was New Britain, part of the Bismarck chain.  To its small capital town of Rabaul the Australian government sent Lark Force, comprising of 1,500 soldiers, plus a handful of outdated planes and nurses.  Most of the soldiers were volunteers with only a few weeks training and its commanders were reservists with some World War I experience.  After the attack on Pearl Harbour some of the locals were evacuated, but Lark Force was not strengthened.  On January 23, 1942, the Japanese attacked Rabaul in strength, the town chosen for the headquarters of Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific.  The attackers quickly captured the town, its deep water port, and two airstrips. 

The Australian defence was weak and poorly coordinated, and those troops that did not surrender fled into the jungle.  They had few supplies and little knowledge of how to survive in such an environment.  They headed west and south, hoping that the Australian government would send ships or seaplanes to rescue them.  There was to be no Dunkirk-style rescue, however, and many were tracked down by the Japanese and taken prisoner or killed.  Over the next few months a couple of hundred managed to escape the island.  Those captured toiled as forced labourers before being sent by ship to Japan.  The officers and women were separated from the enlisted soldiers and civilian men, who were packed into an old cruise-liner.  En route to Japan it was torpedoed by a US submarine with the loss of all prisoners, over a thousand souls perishing. 

In Invasion Rabaul, Gamble tells the story of Lark Force, the fall of Rabaul, the disorderly retreat and escape attempts, and the fate of prisoners, drawing on accounts and interviews of survivors and archival material.  He nicely mixes a general overview of the history of the events with more personal stories about members of Lark Force and their fates.  What is largely missing is a discussion of the Australian government and military decisions and actions, and reactions of the Australian public.  Nonetheless, a very readable account of one of Australian tragedies of the Second World War.

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