The War Illustrated No. 228, Vol. 9, March 15th 1946

Au s tr alia's Heroic 6 Gail For c e9 During the dark days that opened the Pacific War, when the Japanese rolled south in a mighty flood with all the initial advantages o f tactical surprise and painstaking preparation, numerous tiny Allied garrisons isolated in the vast Pacific were perforce abandoned to sacrifice and suffering. It is true courage when a man bravely enters battle and fights to the last, knowing full well his chances o f survival are indeed remote. Fine pages o f heroism were written by men in circumstances such as these— by the British Hat ongkong, by the Americans on Wake Island, and by the Australians on Am boina in the Moluccas. The bulk o f the Australian garrison on A m boina was made up by the 2/21 Battalion which consisted of volunteers who enlisted following the fall o f France in June 1940. Other battalions formed at the same time were dispatched to the Middle East where,as members o f the famous 9th Australian Division, they stood Rommel at bay outside Tobruk for more than half a year. The 221 Battalion, however, was transferred to the 23rd Brigade o f the ill-fated 8th Division. Early in 1941 the bulk o f the 8th Division moved to Malaya, but the 23rd Brigade was detached to fill another role. Based on Darwin, it was to secure the airfields along vital lines o f communication between Aus­tralia and Singapore in the event of war in the Pacific. Split into three Battalion groups, the Brigade was entrusted with the defence o f Rabaul (New Britain), A m boina (M olucca Islands) and Kocpang (Dutch Timor). A force of Commandos was earmarked to secure the important airfield at Dilli, in Portuguese Timor (seepage 714, Vol. 6). Five Simultaneous Landings Based on the assumption that the great key base of Singapore would stand, the Brigade’s role—which proved impossible for a force of that size—was not so greatly out of proportion at the time o fits conception. Although plans for the defence o f these island airfields, so close to the Australian mainland, had been drawn up in conjunction with Dutch military authorities they could not be implemented until the Netherlands became at war with Japan. When Pearl H arbour (December 7,1941) at outlast an end to their waiting the 2/40 Battalion group moved to Koepang, and the 2/21 to Am boina, where the small Dutch garrisons gladly welcomed their coming. Meanwhile, the force from the 2/2 Inde­pendent Company of Commandos overtook the airfield at Dilli, in Portuguese Timor, despite Portuguese protests at this alleged violation of her neutrality. By December 17 the move was completed. I T n q w n as “Gull Force,” the 2/21 Bat-talion group found a garrison o f about two thousand native troops, led by Dutch officers, awaiting them on A m boina. Although comparatively lightly armed, the Dutch had two six-inch coastal guns defend­ing the fine Am bon harbour. The only artillery the 2/21 Battalion had in support were four tw o-pounder guns from the 18th Anti-tank Battery. Communications on A m boina were poor, for the island, shaped alike distorted figure eight, had only a narrow neck o f land joining the two major portions, and it boasted few roads. Main communication between the airfield o f Laha, north o f the Ambon harbour, and A m bon itself on the south, was by boat across its waters. Two companies less a platoon o f the 2/21 Bat­talion were entrusted with the defence o f Laha airfield. The remainder o f the group manned the approaches to A m bon itself. On the cast o f the island, the Dutch-led native troops dug in along the coast. I t 9 / I tOY 7/1 CA TIt X i Y 'C 'IG hundredTH Australians garrisoned '¦the-*— island of A m boina, in the Netherlands East Indies, in January 1942 when 20,000 Japanese stormed ashore less than two hundred remained alive a t the Japanese capitulation in September 1945. The full story of the fortitude and suffering of “Gull Force ”—revealed only after liberation —is told specially for “The War Illustrated .”So confident were the Japanese that Singapore would be theirs that they did not wait for its fall before beginning to roll up the thin line of garrisons astride the direct approaches to Australia. On January 23,1942, they landed 17,000 shock troops, quickly overwhelming the small Australian garrison o f 1,400 men holding Rabaul. Next 011 the list was Am boina. Three days before the enemy descended in force on January 31, the A m boina garrison knew they were coming. .AR.A .F.Lock- .CE RAH Miles 1---------1 ______1 1 Piroe \(semhg) 010207 Ba-y Roads—---------- a LaM Lima Hi la./'Waal] Pas 1 \\^*V/ j ******'A ROE A apart) ea>t 0<?% NOESfi ^Or %LAOET P C L c/f i cAM BOINA, where a depleted Allied garrison fought 20,000 Japanese for four days, February 1-4,1942, and survivors were subjected to torture unsurpassed in the War. heed Hudsons had sighted an enemy convoy o f approximately 40 vessels, including air­craft carriers and troopships, heading in the direction of the island. What units o f the squadron remained airworthy carried out raids on the enemy, but on January 30 the squadron was ordered to withdraw to Darwin. C h o r t l y after midnight on January 31 an enemy force o f 20,000 men made five simul­taneous landings on Am boina, mainly on the cast coast. With the dawn, swarms o f carrier-based Japanese aircraft held undis­puted sway over the island, bombing and strafing at will. Within a few hours the Japanese penetrated the native troops’ position west of Paso and drove down upon the Australians holding Laha airfield and A m bon. Communications between the two forces failed, enemy bombing destroying all wireless and cutting the sole telephone line. For four days the unequal battle raged. In ferocious hand-to-hand infighting the jungle the two companies north o f the harbour denied the enemy the Laha airfield, standing squarely across its eastern ap­proaches. Their old Lewis guns and three- inch mortars broke up every assault. Just as stubbornly, the remainder o f the Battalion held the enemy at bay on the south o f the harbour. Japanese warships penetrated the harbour on February 3, bringing their guns to bear at point-blank range. Like David confronting Goliath, the four tw o-pounder guns opened fire to engage the enemy vessels. Thin platoons were shuffled round in the tall kunai grass in an endeavour to stem every enemy penetration but with their ammunition spent, their dumps blasted by bombing behind them ,the Allied force at last succumbed to the weight o f the enemy. PAGE 707 By February 4, A m bon was in enemy hands and the bombardment was directed at the last Australian pocket holding out on Laha airfield. That afternoon, the Japanese swarmed across the airfield—and the battle o f A m boina was at its end. The well-planned Japanese offensive had required the L aha airfield for their next move. A fortnight later, on February 19, squadrons o f their medium bombers took off from the airfield to join aircraft from a carrier task force which carried out the first smashing raid on Darwin, completely neu­tralizing the Australian base. At the same time thousands o f enemy troops stormed ashore in Timor to seize K oepang and Dilli. Back on A m boina, 26 Australian walking- wounded had escaped from a dressing-station at the conclusion o f the battle and had taken to the jungle. Wending their way from island to island, mainly by native canoe, they at last landed on the shore o f the Gulf o f C arpentaria :and the story o f the battle o f A m boina became known in Australia. aBut fog o f uncertainty regarding the fate o f the survivors cloaked the island for three years. Not one member o f the garrison during this period was officially posted as a prisoner o f war by the enemy. Then, after the Japanese capitulation, in September 1945, a story o f horror became known. Survivors Too Weak to Stand Through these long years o f incarceration the Japanese tortured, starved and subjected their prisoners to every inhuman bestiality Inconceivable. the hell-cam fop Tantoei tortures included the stringing-up o f Aus­tralian prisoners to trees with wire cables tied round their hands, their feet just touch­ing the ground. In this position they were beaten until insensible, revived with water, then beaten again. This went on for days, Japanese placing lighted cigarettes in the prison ers’ nostrils and inflicting other devil­ries until death brought merciful release. Desperate attempts to escape met with ruthless treatment at the hands o f the Japanese. Indeed, none managed to escape, and 17 Australians were executed during the long years on A m boina. Another enemy trick was to place ammuni­tion dumps in and around the prison camp. With the coming o f Allied aerial supremacy A m boina was subjected to heavy attacks, and one raid found the ammunition dump, which exploded. Scores o f Australian, Dutch and native prisoners, including some women and children, were killed or wounded. The last Australian medical officer in the camp was killed by bom b-blast while tending casualties. Thereafter sickness took terrible toll. Prisoners suffering from tropical ulcers were kicked and beaten about their decaying limbs. Others were forced to open picric acid bombs with hammers, thereby receiv­ing terrible burns. "C'arly in 1945, when Allied forces were becoming victorious on all fronts, the Japanese quickened the tem poof their efforts to work the prisoners to death. Between January and August o f that year, 290 Australians died, bringing the total laid to rest in their small cemetery to 428. Thus there were less than 200 fever-stricken survivors o f the original 800 Australians on Am boina when the blessed relief o f liberation ended their suffering. Rescue ships found most o f the gaunt survivors too weak or ill to stand. The last chapter of the Am boina horror was written Mon orotai, where an Australian Court Martial sentenced to death by shooting the Japanese Commander and two o f his officers staffing the hell-hole of Tantoei. Thirty-tw o other guards will pay for their inhumanity with terms behind barbed wire ranuinR from one to twentv years.
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