August 29th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Same-sex marriage and the SOGI ideological agenda

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Canada: basic freedoms lost since same-sex marriage came to town

CANBERRA OBSERVED Abbott, Shorten fixin' for some feudin' next year

OBITUARY RIP Frank Scully, last survivor of the Labor Split

EDITORIAL Colleagues digging holes Tony Abbott has to fill in

EDUCATION There must be a better plan than Naplan

HISTORY OF INDONESIA Sukarno makes way for Suharto's "New Order"

HISTORY Fateful indecision: the tragedy of Rabaul

FAMILY LIFE A father's presence in the home: part I

SCOTUS: JUDICIAL ACTIVISM On the having of the cake and the eating of it too

LIFE ISSUES When an abomination becomes good business

CINEMA Spy sequel vies with a spy history repeat Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

BOOK REVIEW An important biography of B.A.

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Fateful indecision: the tragedy of Rabaul

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, August 29, 2015

Despite a Labor-manufactured myth of its “greatness” the ALP government of Australia during World War II has some very dark patches on its record.

John Curtin

One was the demand that Australian troops be withdrawn from Tobruk under enemy attack, resulting in the loss of many Australian and British lives. Then there were the useless but costly campaigns against beaten and bypassed Japanese island garrisons late in the war, with hundreds more lives thrown away.

Worse was the battle of Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in January 1942, a foredoomed battle that should never have been fought.

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Rabaul was garrisoned by Australian Army “Lark Force” units, totalling about 1,400 men. The Royal Australian Air Force, with another 100 men, had just eight Wirraway training aircraft – slow, lightly armed with just two guns, and hopelessly outclassed by the Japanese Zeros – and four Hudson light bombers.

It was plain that the Rabaul base would be of great strategic value to the Japanese. Possession of it would vastly extend the range of their aircraft for the New Guinea campaign, and also give added cover for their great naval base at Truk. Plainly they would not allow it to remain in Australian hands.

Australia had no reinforcements to send to Rabaul, important as it was. The only sane course would have been to evacuate it and at least save the garrison to fight another day. Who was responsible for this not being done?

As happened on an enormously greater scale with Singapore, the Chinese population was, in deference to the White Australia policy, not even given temporary refuge in Australia, but left to be brutally ill-treated and massacred by the conquering Japanese. The massacre of Nanking had served notice of what the Chinese, and indeed all prisoners, might expect.

The Australian soldiers and airmen were likewise left to their fate. Fifteen hundred men isolated on Rabaul, who could have been evacuated and saved, were set up to be a useless and futile sacrifice.

The importance for the Japanese of seizing Rabaul was evidenced by the size of the force they sent to attack it: two heavy aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, 14 destroyers and many transports and smaller craft.

The first Japanese attack came on January 4, 1942, spearheaded by aircraft from two of the elite carrier force that had hit Pearl Harbour and would go on to bomb Darwin. On January 20 a force of 100 planes attacked.

The eight slow, under-gunned Wirraway trainers took off to engage them. Three Wirraways were shot down and two crash-landed without being able to harm the fast, agile, well-armed enemy, though one Zero was shot down by ground fire. One of the three surviving Wirraways was damaged.

The Australian coast defence artillery was destroyed by these air attacks and the Australian troops retreated inland. The surviving aircraft flew out, carrying some wounded men, and the airstrip was wrecked behind them.

Back in Australia, the grotesque minister for labour and national service, “Eddie” Ward (coiner of the phrase “four-bob-a-day murderers” to describe Australian servicemen), chose this moment to announce, without Prime Minister Curtin’s knowledge or consent, that the government was about to introduce the nationalisation of industry and commerce (it wasn’t), creating a domestic political crisis that further distracted cabinet from what was happening in Rabaul.

Curtin then decided this was a good time to take a month’s holiday, returning to his home in Western Australia by a succession of slow trains.

Apparently this was at the urging of ministers concerned for his health, but one cannot imagine Churchill, even when ageing and exhausted, or for that matter Menzies, doing anything similar in the middle of a great crisis, let alone what was the greatest in the country’s history (the battle for Malaya/Singapore was also entering its last phase).

Journalist Bob Wurth has written: “Curtin retreated by rail from Melbourne in his luxurious carriage behind troops travelling in barely converted cattle trucks. Curtin trundled across Victoria into South Australia and entered the long, hot haul over the Nullarbor.

“Curtin’s only link with his military chiefs, his ministers, and indeed the world, was a telegraph pole with a single strand of wire that ran into a shed. Inside was a Morse code key connected to the Commonwealth Railways Telegraph network.”

Up to 9,000 Japanese troops had landed on Rabaul by January 23, as Curtin sat in the Nullarbor. A series of small but desperate battles followed, and the Australians, outnumbered nearly 10 to one, split up into small groups and took to the jungle.

The garrison’s lives were thrown away uselessly by a government apparently too paralysed with fear to take the obvious course of ordering them to escape or sending a ship for them when there was time.

Over the next few weeks most of Lark Force surrendered or were captured. One group of about 130 was bayoneted to death after surrendering, and many more died in captivity. A large number were drowned below decks when a ship taking them to Japan was torpedoed by an American submarine.

The decision to leave those men on Rabaul was an unnecessary sacrifice and a disgrace and betrayal by the government of the day.

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