Rabaul 1942

The invasion of New Britain and New Ireland and the capture of the Australian garrison was a significant strategic victory for the Japanese. The invasion came from the nearby Caroline Islands, the site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk. The Lark Force troops who were not captured at Kavieng and Rabaul made their way southeast along the coast to Arawe, where they escaped to Finschafen on the New Guinea mainland. The Japanese intercepted and murdered around 160 men at Tol Plantation. Nonetheless some 400 Australians would escape the island.

Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, was the administrative capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Its main strategic assets were an excellent harbour and two nearby airfields at Lakunai and Vunakanau. Growing Japanese militancy in the pre-war period convinced Australian authorities to fortify New Britain and Lark Force garrison was deployed there in March 1941.

Lark Force comprised the Victorian 2/22nd Infantry Battalion and various artillery and support units. The 1st Independent Company, of 130 men, was stationed on nearby New Ireland. Seaward approaches to Rabaul were defended by ten obsolete Wirraway fighters and four Hudson bombers of No. 24 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

The first Japanese air raid on Rabaul occurred on 4 January 1942, less than a month after the Japanese declared war. Five days later, RAAF aircraft spotted a Japanese invasion fleet off the nearby Japanese controlled island of Truk. On 20 January 1942, one hundred Japanese aircraft struck the Lakunai and Vunakanau airfields. A fierce encounter followed and the three surviving Wirraways and a single Hudson were withdrawn to New Guinea. RAAF personnel destroyed the airfields and were evacuated by Empire flying boats soon after.

At 1:00 am on 23 January 1942, 5,000 Japanese troops came ashore at Blanche Bay, vastly outnumbering the 1,396 soldiers of Lark Force awaiting them. Resistance lasted only a few hours before Lark Force commander, Colonel John Scanlan (1890 - 1962), ordered the men to disperse in an 'Every man for himself' withdrawal. No contingency plans were in place for retreat, chaos ensued and Lark Force disintegrated.

Australian remains at Tol Plantation. Image: The Montevideo Maru Foundation

Although many men managed to escape New Britain by boat the overwhelming majority were captured by the Japanese. On 3 February 1942, 160 prisoners were massacred at the Tol Plantation on the shores of Wide Bay. On 1 July 1942, 845 Australian soldiers and 208 civilian internees, captured on New Britain and New Ireland, were killed when the Japanese transport Montevideo Maru was sunk by the submarine USS Sturgeon. Another sixty Australian officers, six army nurses, 17 civilian nurses and female missionaries on board Natuno Maru reached Japan sometime later. There they remained until liberated in September 1945.

-Neil Sharkey