About This Unit
Java Task Force - "Blackforce"
“Blackforce” was the name given to a scratch task force assembled to reinforce British and Dutch defenders in a delaying defence operation against the Japanese on the island of Java during the period immediately after the fall of Singapore in early 1942. Commanded by Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, VC, ED (he was promoted to the role), it was not properly manned, equipped, or supported nor was an extraction plan genuinely put in place. It was doomed from the start and shared the fate of other “penny packet” defensive measures on Ambon (“Gull Force”), Timor (“Sparrow Force”) and Rabaul (“Lark Force”)
Tactically and strategically Australia’s interests would ultimately have been better served by retrieving these scattered collections of men and equipment and concentrating them for later planned operations against the Japanese. Only Sparrow Force on Timor achieved any long lasting tactical effect, in the form of a guerrilla campaign.
The task force was formed from among embarked units on the RMS Orcades, the fastest ship in the convoy returning the 6th and 7th Divisions from the Middle East to Australia, following the entry of the Japanese into the war. They disemabrked on 19 Febrary 1942, the same day Darwin was bombed by the same Aircraft-carrier task force that had raided Pearl Harbour.
During the course of the return journey, the British and Australian Prime Ministers had engaged in a terse ‘cable war’, with Churchill endeavouring to have the convoy diverted to Burma to reinforce the beleaguered British forces there. Curtin was equally determined that, having just lost the 8th Division almost in its entirety in a futile defence of Singapore, Australia’s most experienced and best trained troops would be returned to defend Australia from what was rapidly shaping as a direct invasion threat to the mainland of Australia.
Curtin ultimately prevailed, but not before the Orcades was diverted to Java. All the while Curtin was wracked by apprehension about the security of the returning convoy and its vulnerability to Japanese naval units then pushing quickly into the Indian Ocean.
The task force was determined more by who was on the Orcades rather than the capability of component units. The fact that their vehicles, many of their weapons and ammunition stocks were embarked on other ships in the convoy seemed to have escaped the attention of the mission planners.
Blackburns force was landed on Java on 19 February 1942. It comprised:
- 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion
- 2nd /2nd Pioneer Battalion
- 2nd/6th Field Company Engineers
- 105th General Transport Company
- 2nd/3rd Reserve Motor Transport Company
- 2nd/2nd Casualty Clearing Station
Other sub units which are not specified. A US Texas National Guard artillery battery was attached.
Once on the ground , Blackforce came under the command of British General H.D.W. Sitwell, who in turn was under command of the Dutch commander, General Hein der Porten
They were largely without weapons, vehicles and ammunition which were on other ships in the convoy. Miraculously, Blackforce was able to equip itself from stocks of “Lend Lease” equipment shipped by the Americans for the Dutch and abandoned on the docks. The Dutch at that stage controlled the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then known.
Blackburn managed to assemble a HQ staff and three scratch infantry battalions based on the 2/3rd Machine Gun, the 2/2nd Pioneers, and a mixed "Reserve Group". The only U.S. ground forces in Java were also incorporated in Blackforce.
Tactically, under Blackburn’s leadership, Blackforce gave a very good account of itself under appalling circumstances. Having held up the Japanese for two full days, their flanking Dutch units gave way and Blackforce had no option other than to withdraw to avoid exposing their own flanks. That Blackforce conducted itself so well was due more to the resolve and judgement of the local commanders and their men than any strategic ‘tour de force’ on the part of the planners back in Australia.
They were abandoned to their fate and Blackforce surrendered to the Japanese on 12th March 1942. They ended up as Prisoners of War of the Japanese, beginning another chapter of extreme hardship and privation.
(c) Steve Larkins Feb 14