Australia's Northern Periphery
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, Australia recognised that a threat was posed by Japan, the third member of the Axis pact with German and Italy.
When the 2nd AIF was raised, one of its four Divisions, the 8th, was sent to Malaya and Singapore for garrison duties there. Strategically, Australia pinned its hopes on the Singapore strategy whereby the island would be a fortress protecting British interests from an anticipated seaward attack. Coastal artillery, and a naval base from which major British naval units would sortie to defeat the enemy underpinned the plan. However it was neither resourced or complete by the end of 1941.
In addition Australia had interests throughout the region and sought to protect them. When faced with such a dilemma, military planners have three broad options.
- They can "penny packet" resources to provide token cover of as many of its vital assets as possible hoping to hold the enemy at bay at one or more locations. The obvious flaw in this strategy is if they are confronted by a superior force and they can't be reinforced or withdrawn, then propsects are bleak.
- They can deploy a light 'screening force' forward and hold the bulk of its combat power in reserve, to be deployed once the enemy's main effort is revealed. This implies good mobility, effective early warning and excellent intelligence. Australian forces in the region had none of those.
- The third broad option is to choose an area of operations and consolidate and concentrate its available resources where it believes it can engage the enemy and inflict a decisive defeat on the ground of its own choosing, in a either a fixed or mobile defensive stance.
Australia chose option 1. It was more a political disposition than a sound military one. It achieved the most common result of such an approach; defeat in detail and loss of all the forces thus deployed without any appreciable detrimental effect on the enemy.
In respect of the smaller operations, Australias's initial response to the demands of protecting scattered assets was to try to position limited resources to protect what were deemed key interests. Australia's strategy to guard its interests in the islands to its north was based around Singapore, the island of Ambon (in Indonesia), Timor and Rabaul in New Britain to the north of New Guinea. New Guinea itself was garrisoned separately, based on the capital Port Moresby.
One of the 8th Division's Brigades, the 23rd, was identified to cover Australia's other interests in the region, the 'Northern Periphery'.
The Australian 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division was allocated an impossible mission. Comprising three Battalions, the 2nd/21st, 2nd/22nd and 2nd/40th Battalions, they were allocated to Ambon, Rabaul and Timor respectively. They were on their own, with no menas of reinforcing each other or evacuating if need be.
When the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, it launched simultaneous attacks on the Philippine Islands and on the northern coast of the Malay Peninsula at Kota Baru. The attack was intended to bring the United States of America into the war and lure it into a major naval battle in the western Pacific as part of Japanese Naval strategy, where it was to be destroyed in detail by the Japanese Navy.
These pre-emptive strikes also brought the outposts of the British Empire under direct threat. Britain was already stretched in Europe and the Middle East, so could ill afford another Front.
As these events unfolded, Australia was faced with an imminent threat right on its doorstep, with nearly 75% of its available fighting forces deployed on the other side of the world. The short term prognosis for Australia was bleak.
Most of the 8th Division was trapped in Malaya / Singapore, ultimately lost into captivity in Australia's worst single campaign in its history. The Fall of Malaya and Singapore is the subject of a separate campaign entry.
Meanwhile, the RAAF units in the region were hunted to near-extinction by the marauding Japanese while endeavouring to effect evacuations to Australia. Naval units suffered a similar fate, with HMAS Yarra and Perth lost in actions in and around the Indonesian archipeligo.
It was quickly to get much worse for 23rd Brigade, scattered across the islands to Australia's north. The general disposition of the 23rd Brigade was as follows:
"Gull Force" - 2/21st Battalion Ambon.
"Sparrow Force" - Timor 2/40th Battalion and 2/2nd Independent (Commando) Company
"Lark Force" - 2/22nd Battalion Rabaul / New Britain.
A last minute decision saw a fourth group 'Blackforce' deployed into Java. All but one element of Sparrow Force would be lost.
"Sparrow Force" - Timor Click here (/research/home-page-archives/dutch-timor-and-sparrow-force)
Of all the groups deployed through the islands, one particular element of "Sparrow Force" lasted the longest. After the Japanese occupation and surrender of the bulk of the Force, the 2nd/2nd Commando Squadron in Portuguese East Timor headed into the hinterland.(1)
The independent company troops were specially trained for commando-style operations, and they became the only Australian force still in action in enemy territory after the Japanese conquest of south-east Asia. Brigadier Veale and a group of about 250 men in West Timor who avoided capture, were able to withdraw east and join the 2/2nd Independent Company in East Timor. It took some time,and the construction of a radio by the Commandos, for headquarters in Australia to realise that Australian troops were still holding out and operating against the enemey in Timor.
Their resistance continued thanks to improvisation and later some level of high-risk re-supply from Australia, and the support of the local people. They were however a most unwelcome thorn in the occupiers side and the Japanese garrison was reinforced and operations mounted to hunt the guerillas down. The local people paid a heavy price for their support of the Australians and this in part hastened a decision to withdraw them. The last remaining troops were extracted in February 1943.
"Gull Force" - Ambon February 1942 - click here (/research/home-page-archives/the-loss-of-ambon-and-gull-force)
"Lark Force" - Rabaul - 25 April 1941 - 24 January 1942 - click here (/explore/units/1822)
"Blackforce" - 28 February 1942 to 12 March 1942 / Loss of HMAS Perth - click here (/research/home-page-archives/java-1942--blackforce-and-the-loss-of-hmas-perth)
In addition to the planned dispositions outlined above, one of the worst decisions at this time of the war was to deploy a scratch force of returning 7th Division support units into Java. "Blackforce" was positioned, as an afterthought, as the 6th and 7th Divisions were returning from the Middle East.
Intended as a gesture of support to the Dutch administration in the Netherlands East Indies, it was a group of combat-seasoned experienced men Australia could ill-afford to squander at this critical time. Commanded by newly promoted Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, VC it was comprised of miscellaneous units of the 7th Division such, including the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion that had fought in Syria, and the 2/2nd Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which had served in the siege of Tobruk. 2/2nd CCS included amongst its officers the surgeon Edward “Weary” Dunlop. They were on board the fastest ship in the convoy, the former liner 'Orcades'. They did not even have their weapons, vehicles or ammunition which were on other ships in the convoy.
Blackburn managed to equip his unlikely scratch force with weapons and equipment landed on the docks by the Americans intended for the Dutch. He conducted a creditable delaying defence and inflicted a number of sharp tactical defeats on the enemy but the result was inevitable. Running out of ground, supplies and options, when the Dutch collapsed and all hope of an evacuation was lost, Blackburn surrendered his force to prevent further casualties.
Little did anyone realise what captivity under Japanese control would ultimately mean, as they joined the growing list units and men of what was to become Imperial Japan's forced labour resource and subjected to unimagineable mal-treatment in captivity.(2)
This campaign should be obligatory study for military and government personnel engaged in Defence matters. Few events illustrate more vividly what happens when impulsive 'political' imperatives subsume sound military planning, breaching just about every Principle of War. The only thing that saved the Government and the military hierarchy from the oprobrium of the populace was strict wartime censorship. It was a national disgrace.
For further information, see the related links in the sidebar.
(1) Cleary, Paul (2016) "The Men Who Came Out of the Ground" ISBN 9780733636608 2016,
(2) Faulkner, Andrew (2012) "Arthur Blackburn VC", Wakefield Press ISBN 9781862547841
(3) Gamble, Bruce (2006) Darkest Hour;: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul - Australia's Worst Military Disaster of WWII St Paul Minnesota Zentih Press ISBN 0-7603-2349-6
(4) Keogh, Eustace (1965) South West Pacific 1941-45 Melbourne : Grayflower Publicatons OCLC 7185705 (a standard Army text in the 19702 - 80s)
Compiled by Steve Larkins Dec 17 / Jul 21