Lark Force New Britain

About This Unit

Lark Force - Australia's Northern Periphery 1942

The saga of Australia's 8th Division and its 23rd Brigade, and the allocation of the 'Bird Force' groups (Lark, Gull and Sparrow) across a fan of island groups to Australia's north was an exercise in ineptitude and futility to achieve a political rather than a military end.  It failed dismally all round.  Too few, inadequately supported and with no feasible extraction plan they were doomed from the moment they disembarked from the shipping conveying them to their Area of Operations.

In March 1941 a small Australian Army garrison of approximately 1,400 personnel was sent to Rabaul, New Britain to garrison the outpost, protect its airfields and seaplane anchorages and act as a link in a chain of observation posts across the northern frontiers.

An advance party of 8 officers and 33 other ranks arrived in Rabaul on the 16th March 1941 on board the MV Neptuna.

The force was then consolidated 

2nd AIF - 2nd/22nd Infantry Battalion.  The core of the Force and its major fighting element.  The Battalion had formed on 17 July 1940 and carried out their initial training at Trawool, before being moved to Bonegilla. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H.H. Carr (VX41567). Arrived in Rabaul in March/April 1941, with 716 personnel of all ranks.  The 2/22 Battalion's Regimental Band were all originally Salvation Army Bandsman. Of the twenty-four who enlisted, only one survived their deployment to New Britain in 1941, their subsequent captivity and ill-fated transit to Hainan Island, the ship (Montevideo Maru) being torpedoed en route and all passengers being lost (see below for additional detail).

2nd AIF 17th Anti Tank Battery, Royal Australian Artillery - This unit had previously been 23 Anti Tank Company and was redesignated 17th Anti Tank Battery (less C Troop) on 9 August 1941. Commanded by Captain G. Matheson, E.D. (VX45210). Arrived in Rabaul on 29 September 1941 with 110 all ranks.

2nd AIF A Company of 2nd/10th Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps - Under the command of Major (later Lt-Col) E.C. Palmer (NX35096)

2nd AIF Anti Aircraft and Military Landing Craft Defence (Rabaul), Royal Australian Artillery - Also known as 'L' Anti-Aircraft Battery - Commanded by Lieutenant (later Major) D.M. Selby (NX142851). Arrived in Rabaul on 16 August 1941 with 53 other ranks and two 3" anti-aircraft guns. On 4 January 1942, they became the first Australian troops in action in Australian territory and the first Militia unit to fire on the enemy.

2nd AIF Command HQ New Guinea Area - Commanded by Colonel J.J. Scanlon (TX16307) who was appointed Area Commander on the 8th October 1941.

2nd AIF Fortress Engineers, Royal Australian Engineers - Arrived in Rabaul March/April 1941 as part of the Rabaul Heavy Battery.

2nd AIF L Heavy Battery, Royal Australian Artillery - Commanded by Major H.R.P. Clark (TX6041). Arrived in Rabaul in March/April 1941, with two 6" coast guns, which had been removed from Fort Wallace at Stockton near Newcastle.  The Battery also included Fortress Engineers and Signals, 48 personnel of all ranks.

2nd AIF New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, Australian Infantry (1939 - 1943) - On 4 September 1939, the Administrator of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, Sir Walter McNicoll, was given authorisation from the Australian Government to form a volunteer defence force to be known as the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. NGVR members were public servants, merchants, bankers, business men, members of the Christian missions, miners, prospectors, traders and plantation owners, managers or associated employees.  About 80 men all up.

No. 24 Squadron RAAF was allocated in support, operating Wirraway aircraft (to call them fighters would be a misnomer) and Lockheed Hudson transport / Patrol bombers. 

Background

Rabaul was a key objective of the Japanese and indeed it served as its major base in the SW Pacific War until it was eventually recaptured late in the war (having been by-passed to isolate the 69,000 Japanese troops still there).

Rabaul held great strategic interest for the Japanese because of its deep water harbour and airfields, and as such its potential as a base from which to interdict communications between the USA and Australia and to support operations in New Guinea.

It was defended by Lark Force comprising as detailed above.

The Battle 

Japanese Forces began attacking Rabaul with carrier-based aircraft, commencing on 4 January 1942. A major Task Force emabarked at Truk on the 14th January, in company with two carriers, the Akagi and Kaga and headed for Rabaul.  On 20 January, an air attack by over 100 aircraft was launched against Rabaul.  Coastal Artillery was destroyed, six out of eight defending aircraft were either lost or damaged and as a result Infantry elements were withdrawn from the town of Rabaul itself.

A Force of about 5,000 Japanese troops of the 'South Seas Force', mainly from the 144th Infantry Regiment, invaded on 23 January 1942.  They landed at three points and while resistance was initially effective at Vulcan Beach, the other two prongs met little effective resistance and they quickly made inroads into the defences. By early February had killed captured or put to flight the Australian defenders.

Aftermath

Mopping up continued with many Australian troops remaining at large and attempting to slip away and hope for evacuation.  None had been planned and only a portion of the RAAF managed to get away under their own resources.  No preparation had been made to conduct guerilla warfare either, and without re-supply their situation became hopeless. 

By the 9th of February when the Japanese inserted a force to sever the Australians' line of retreat, the fugitives began surrendering, some 1,000 troops in all.

At about this time a group of 160 Australian PoW were massacred in a series of separate incidents at the Tol Plantation where they were bayonetted, and at Waitavalo Plantation where others were shot. 

A large proportion of those captured and several hundred civilian internees were later transported from Rabaul to Hainan on the merchant ship 'Montevideo Maru'.  It was torpedoed on the 1st July off the Phillippines, by the US submarine Sturgeon, with the loss of all of the Australian personnel on board and most of the crew. See this link for further information - CLICK HERE (/research/home-page-archives/the-pow-death-ships%C2%A0(/research/home-page-archives/the-pow-death-ships))

Some improvised evacuations were carried out and about 450 personnel got away by sea. Some members of Lark Force remained behind as Coast Watchers, providing information on Japanese shipping movements.

Rabaul became the major Japanese base in the region, until late 1943 when it was increasingly isolated by American air and naval action.  It was not subsequently invaded as part of the Allied advance, but rather cut-off and by-passed, neutralising the 69,000 or so Japense troops there.

The units lost at Rabaul were not re-raised.

 

Compiled by Steve Larkins March 2021

 

References:

AWM 2/22nd Australian Infantry Battalion | Australian War Memorial (awm.gov.au) accessed 21/3/21

Lark Force - Lost Lives - The Second World War and the islands of New Guinea (jje.info) accessed 21/3/21

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