New Britain Jungle as Great Equalizer, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2150-2169:

The jungle, it turned out, was a great equalizer. Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto’s battalion encountered several impediments as they pursued the Australians, not the least of which was the heavy rain that blanketed the Gazelle Peninsula. Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Sakigawa’s mechanized unit slowed to a crawl as they advanced around Ataliklikun Bay on January 27. “The butai could not advance as hoped,” he reported. “The mountain roads went up and down and in some places [soldiers] walked in mud and water up to the knees. And also there were obstructions on the roads [such] as fallen bamboo and rotted trees.”

Other units experienced even greater difficulty. One detachment of mountain artillery tried to drag their wheeled guns through the heavy jungle. They reached the Vudal River on January 25 only to find it impossible to ford, so the soldiers hacked out a road to a different crossing. They even labored to build a temporary bridge, but their progress was so slow that they were forced to leave the field guns in the jungle. By the time the detachment finally reached the western shores of Ataliklikun Bay, they had lost contact with the fleeing Australians.

As a result of such setbacks, the battalion commanders requested naval support. General Horii arranged for a destroyer and three transports to conduct a “sea pursuit,” resulting in the aforementioned landings at Lassul Bay and Massawa Bay, but these proved to be only a minor threat to the Australians. The Japanese did not venture inland, mainly because the jungle quickly conspired against them. As the writer of an operational report later explained: “Practically every man of the 1st Infantry Battalion suffered from malaria owing to an eruptive outbreak of the disease at the time of mopping up … in particular, the pursuit action in the Ataliklikun Bay area.”

The heavy rains and high humidity of the past several days had created ideal conditions for mosquitoes. Many of the men in Tsukamoto’s battalion, poised to capture hundreds of Australians, were themselves laid low by malaria. That so many became infected was the result of “nothing but negligence,” according to the report, which placed blame squarely on the “leaders, medical staffs and epidemic prevention staffs in particular.” Days passed before the Japanese realized what had caused the outbreak. At least ten men died, and several others were “affected in the brain and became mad.” Within days, the combat strength of the South Seas Detachment was reduced by half.

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Japan’s South Seas Detachment Crosses the Line, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1125-1147:

Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda, from the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku, kept a diary as he sailed to Rabaul aboard the transport Venice Maru. He described the conditions as “very cramped and uncomfortable,” and noted that the temperature inside the ship reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Life inside the other transports was equally awful. There was little fresh water, and the crude wooden benjos (latrines) were up on the main deck, which also happened to be where the meals were cooked. Down below, everyone was tormented by hordes of flies.

The Japanese soldiers were no strangers to terrible conditions or harsh environments. Their rigorous training system, based on the principle of instant obedience achieved through strict discipline, had prepared them well. From the moment they began training as recruits, they were immersed in a culture of degradation and abuse, a rude awakening for people who had spent their entire lives learning group harmony. Not only were recruits cursed and shamed in front of their peers, they were also beaten regularly. Sometimes they were hit on the buttocks with wooden sticks, other times they were slapped, usually with an open hand but occasionally with the sole from a hobnailed shoe. Many instructors were sadistic, barely more than thugs, and they had tremendous latitude to punish recruits with methods calculated to break down every vestige of individuality. Frequently the entire class or platoon received the same punishment: If one suffered, all suffered.

One of the cruelest penalties was meted out during evening meals. Picked at random, recruits were ordered to recite by memory from the Gunjin Chokuyu [軍人勅諭 aka 'Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors'], “Emperor Meiji’s Instructions to the Men of the Fighting Services.” First issued in 1883, it exhorted warriors to carry out their duties with loyalty, propriety, valor, faithfulness, and simplicity. The wording was archaic, difficult to memorize, and if anyone made a mistake or forgot a passage, he was forbidden to eat. For recruits already bruised, exhausted, and ravenous from the day’s training, the denial of food was excruciating. After six months or more of such extreme conditioning, the recruits emerged as well-disciplined soldiers, their “bodies and minds tempered hard as steel.” The men of the South Seas Detachment were no different, and could tolerate anything that nature or the Imperial Army could throw at them.

WHEN THE INVASION FORCE REACHED THE EQUATOR AT 0500 ON JANUARY 20, the South Seas Detachment paused to commemorate a special event. In all of Japan’s 2,600-year history, they were the first army force to cross the line. Miyake later described the scene aboard his vessel: “On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. ‘At this time, when we are about to … advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,’ said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north.”

The South Seas Detachment [南海支隊 Nankai Shitai], under Imperial Japanese Navy command, was mostly drawn from Japan’s 55th Division, which was recruited primarily from Shikoku and played a key role in the Burma Campaign. The 55th Division’s home base and elite POW camp was Zentsūji. The POWs included about 200 Americans captured by the South Seas Detachment on Guam and Wake Island, a few dozen mostly British prisoners from Singapore, and 60 Australian officers from Rabaul. The Zentsūji POW camp was a Potemkin village to impress International Red Cross representatives with Japan’s humane treatment of its captives. Most of the rest of the men captured in the Rabaul Campaign died aboard the hell ship Montevideo Maru en route to Hainan Island, when it was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, on 1 July 1942. The loss of those 1050+ men was Australia’s single worst military disaster of World War II.

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Australia’s Thin “Northern Barrier” in 1941

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 668-680, 288-295:

To the military planners in Australia, the long string of islands comprising the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and the British-protected Solomons represented a sort of fence. Some in the War Cabinet even referred to it as the “Northern Barrier,” though the islands weren’t fortified until 1941. Lionel Wigmore, an esteemed Australian historian, more accurately described them as “a slender chain of forward observation posts.”

In the fall of 1939, an officer of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) set out to link the islands with a communications and intelligence network. Over a period of months, Lieutenant Commander Eric A. Feldt traveled “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” from New Guinea all the way to the New Hebrides, single-handedly enrolling dozens of plantation owners, traders, and assorted civilians into a loosely organized group known as the “coastwatchers.” All of them would perform a crucial role the coming war, many at the cost of their lives.

Simultaneously, detachments of a small militia organization, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), were established among the major islands. Representing the mandated territory’s only infantry force prior to 1941, the NGVR was authorized the day after Australia declared war on Germany, and many of the region’s able-bodied men were volunteers. Lieutenant Colonel John Walstab, the supervisor of police on New Britain, trained a unit of approximately eighty men who formed a rifle company, a machine gun squad, and a small headquarters unit.

Finally, in early 1941, the AIF decided to send most of the 8th Division to augment the defenses at Singapore, minus the 23rd Brigade, which would garrison three islands north of the mainland: Ambon, Timor, and New Britain. The War Cabinet grandiosely referred to the islands as the “Malay Barrier,” but each small landmass was separated by hundreds of miles of ocean.

The garrisons chosen to defend the islands received operational code names, though none sounded particularly inspiring. Sparrow Force, consisting of the 2/40th Infantry Battalion [= 2nd Battalion of 40th Regiment] plus an antiaircraft battery and troops of the Netherlands East Indies, would be sent to Timor, east of Java. Gull Force, with the 2/21st Infantry Battalion as its nucleus, would fortify Ambon, two hundred miles farther to the north. The last but strategically most important assignment, the defense of Rabaul, went to the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion and its attached units, known collectively as Lark Force.

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Massive Volcanic Eruption in New Britain, c. AD 600

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 391-417:

The most recent of these caldera-forming eruptions occurred sometime around AD 600, though its exact date is a mystery. The eruption was cataclysmic—one of the most powerful since the time of Christ—and utterly devastated hundreds of square miles of New Britain and the surrounding islands. It likely began with a period of vigorous seismic activity which generated large quantities of magma beneath the existing ring fractures. Numerous tremors shook the island over a period of days or even weeks as pressurized gases weakened one of the old fault lines. The earthquakes grew in frequency and intensity until the conditions underground finally reached a critical state. At some point, the magma chamber not only boiled over, it blew apart.

The noise must have been stupefying. The ground literally ripped apart around the weakened ring fracture, from which a great ring of fire twenty miles in circumference burst forth. Pent-up gases exploded from below, hurling a thick column of rock, dust, and ash into the sky. The tiniest particles, boosted by heat and convection, soared an estimated one hundred thousand feet into the upper atmosphere. Larger rocks and glowing blobs of magma arced back to the surface, where they splattered against the ground or struck the sea with the sound of thunder.

The greatest devastation resulted from the terrible cloud itself. Most of the material hurtling skyward eventually lost momentum, then gravity took over and the outer portions of the dark, roiling column collapsed. Superheated to more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the material accelerated as it fell, and when it hit the ground it burst outward at more than one hundred miles an hour. Known as “pyroclastic flow,” the incandescent cloud spread rapidly over the ancient volcanoes and raced downhill to the sea, boiling the water spontaneously as it blasted across the surface. Outlying islands were wiped clean in seconds. By the time the energy finally dissipated, the fiery cloud had killed every living thing on land and marine life near the ocean’s surface for thirty miles in every direction.

Other destructive effects reached even farther. The prevailing winds carried heavy accumulations of ash fifty miles southwest of the volcano. Huts collapsed, crops were ruined, and the surviving islanders groped through blinding, polluted air. They too would be wiped out, doomed to eventual starvation unless they could quickly find a source of unaffected food.

Sometime after the eruption subsided, the unsupported roof over the empty magma chamber caved in. An oblong area approximately seven miles long and five miles wide collapsed suddenly, sliding downward for hundreds of feet. Additionally, the sea breached a portion of the southeastern rim and flooded most of the huge depression.

After the dust finally settled and the sea calmed, a large portion of the island resembled a bizarre moonscape. The pyroclastic flow had deposited grayish veneers of ash and pumice on the steep slopes of the old volcanoes, and low-lying areas around the caldera were buried under a hundred feet or more of the stuff. Based on vulcanologists’ estimations, the eruption had disgorged ten cubic kilometers of magma and debris from the earth. (By comparison, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 displaced only three to four cubic kilometers, and the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 displaced less than one cubic kilometer of material.)

Compare Krakatoa and Long Island (Papua New Guinea), which produced similarly massive eruptions.

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Japan’s Navy Guarded Australasia, 1917

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1901-1936:

At a time when the Wolf and the Seeadler were converging on the Pacific and seas around Australasia, neither Australia nor New Zealand had any adequate naval defence, the number of ships available being greatly diminished by war needs elsewhere in the world. In March 1917 the Australian Naval Board, which knew that, if the Australian fleet had not been in existence, then the Emden and any other raider could have attacked shipping out of Australasian ports with impunity. A report on the disposition of the fleet submitted to the Admiralty in London noted that in 1917 the Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were all serving in European waters, that the HMAS Psyche (which New Zealand had had in its waters in 1914 and had now returned to the Australians), the Fantome and three destroyers were attached to the British China Station. HMAS Encounter was stationed to protect shipping off southwestern Australia. Three other destroyers were stationed at, respectively, Jervis Bay, Twofold Bay and Bass Strait for patrols on the main shipping lane between Sydney and Melbourne.

The board noted that at times, due to ships either relieving with the China Station or undergoing refits, Australian waters had been left largely unprotected. It was known at this stage that some sort of raider was at work in the Indian Ocean and on 3 April 1917 the Encounter was ordered to New Zealand to escort a troop convoy to Fremantle, where it was augmented with Australian troopships, and on to Colombo. Australia had nothing larger than a destroyer left in its waters, and the Naval Board, clearly exasperated, cabled London for some help in safeguarding Australia’s coasts and shipping. Three days later the decision was made to send Japanese ships to Australia.

A number of Japanese ships had paid calls to Australian and New Guinean ports in the early years of the war escorting a number of troop convoys and patrolling the main Indian Ocean shipping lanes, particularly those out of Fremantle. As a result of these latest Australian requests, the light cruisers the Hirado and the Chikuma were assigned to protect Australia for most of the remainder of 1917. They spent some months operating out of Sydney and Jervis Bay, and separately visited Melbourne, Hobart, Townsville, Brisbane and, several New Zealand ports as well as patrolling northwards to the New Hebrides, New Guinea and Fiji. Three other Japanese ships made occasional sweeps down the coast of Western Australia during 1917, giving many Australians the lasting impression Japan was solely responsible for guarding the Pacific Ocean and for escorting Australian troops safely across the Indian Ocean. The official history of Australia’s naval role in the Great War later argued that it was misleading to believe Allied naval defence in the Pacific was solely a Japanese concern, but without the vessels from Britain’s Asian ally there would have been no meaningful defence at sea for Australia and New Zealand during much of 1917. Not that their presence was particularly reassuring, especially for the New Zealanders.

The legacy of the ‘Yellow Peril’ fears, which raged in both Dominions at the end of the nineteenth century, was still strong in the minds of many people. New Zealand’s government firmly believed that, while the Germans posed a present and clear danger, ultimately the British Dominions would face peril from Japan. The alacrity with which the Tokyo government had occupied German islands in the mid-Pacific had not been lost on Wellington. Across the Tasman similar fears were held by the Federal government in Melbourne, and both countries were uneasy about a British undertaking to support Japan’s continued occupation of the Marshall and other islands of German Micronesia. In 1918 Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes asked New Zealand’s William Massey to help him oppose the move when it came to a peace conference, but the New Zealand Prime Minister was much more concerned with advancing his own country’s claim to Western Samoa when the time came. New Zealand’s own defences at sea were practically nonexistent after 1915.

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Outfitting the Sea Devil’s Sea Eagle, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2632-2681:

The raider captain, Count Felix von Luckner — the ‘Sea Devil’ as he would come to be known — was not the sort of man who would lie. His every act was dictated by the conventions of seamanlike chivalry. His early training and experience on sailing vessels surpassed that of most other German naval officers so, although he lacked the seniority in 1916 to rate a command of his own, he was the obvious choice when the Imperial German Navy decided to commission a sailing ship as a commerce raider. He had begun his sea-going career as a fo’c’sle hand, then passed the examination for an officer’s ticket in the merchant marine and finally joined the navy. As noted earlier, the navy was very much the second choice for a military career in Germany. But it was ideal for those who could not stomach the demands of life in the Prussian-dominated army officer corps. Germany had possessed a national navy only since the Empire was founded in 1871, and it had relatively little tradition. It was the darling of the middle classes of the new Germany; not of the Junkers of East Prussia.

Von Luckner’s early rumbustious life at sea certainly would have knocked any pomposity out of the young von Luckner, and he was just thirty-four when given command of the Seeadler. His career in the navy since 1910 had included service aboard the cruiser Panther sent to German Cameroons in West Africa, the battleship Kronprinz during the Battle of Jutland and as gunnery officer on the first voyage of the commerce raider the Moewe. He was a popular officer, and was well liked by his men when he took command of the Seeadler. Those who were captured by him all spoke well of von Luckner.

The choice of a sailing ship for raider operations was an inspired one. It solved the one major headache now that all the German colonies had been lost and the etappen [coaling stations] no longer existed. A sailing ship required no coal nor would it look out of place. There were still plenty of sailing ships on the high seas (the huge square-rigged, four-masted barques would be used in the South Australia wheat trade until 1939).

The ship chosen was the Pass of Balmaha. She had been captured by a U-boat in 1915, an American ship carrying cotton from New York to Archangel in what was then still Tsarist Russia. The ship had been owned originally by the River Plate Shipping Company and was built in 1878 by Duncan and Company of Scotland. The Pass of Balmaha weighed 1,602 tons gross, she was eighty-three metres long and had a draught of 5.5 metres.

Von Luckner knew that he could not rely on sail alone. While sails released him from complete dependence on coal, the wind was not reliable enough. The raider would have to be able to maintain complete and total manoeuvrability so she could make her escape if she encountered an enemy naval ship. The answer was to install a diesel engine, a type of propulsion not yet considered sufficiently reliable on its own but certainly adequate in an auxiliary role.

For weeks workmen had toiled aboard the ship reshaping everything except for the hull and the masts. In addition to the engines, room had to be found for the fuel tanks and for large water tanks which would provide not only for extended duration at sea but for the many prisoners the Germans intended to capture. Access to the engine room — as one of the holds had now become — was by means of a door at the back of a cupboard. The Germans realised that there was every chance that they would be stopped and inspected by the British and the discovery of an engine aboard a sailing ship would arouse great suspicion, but the door to it was not easily spotted. Apart from accommodating a diesel engine, the space below decks was fitted out with hammocks for captured crews, and three-bunk cabins for their officers; these cabins had stocks of French and English books with which the prisoners would while away the long days and nights of captivity. Below decks would also serve, during the run through the British blockade, as a hiding place for part of the crew, should the ship be stopped and searched because the British would never believe that a cargo carrying clipper needed a crew of sixty-five men. One thing that would make an inspection by the Royal Navy of the area below deck impossible, or at least impracticable, was to load the deck with timber; it was common for lumber ships to have a cargo of logs or planks piled over the hatch covers. The vessel’s ordnance (two 105-millimetre guns and 400 rounds of ammunition, plus small arms) were also stowed below.

While the Pass of Balmaha was undergoing the radical changes needed to fit her out as a raider she was temporarily named the Walter, the explanation being given to any curious German that she was being equipped as a cadet-training ship, which provided a plausible reason for the huge number of bunks and hammocks being installed, not to mention the engine.

Once at sea, the ship would have to adopt that status of a neutral. Von Luckner’s first choice was to impersonate a Norwegian clipper named Maletta which bore an uncanny resemblance to his own ship. Unfortunately, the Maletta was also in northern waters at about the time during which von Luckner was due to sail, so that prevented him using her name. Instead an entirely fictitious name, Irma, was bestowed for the purposes of fooling the British should the vessel be stopped and searched. Several members of the crew had been chosen because they could speak Norwegian. As far as the German Navy records were concerned their new sailing ship was called the SeeadlerSea Eagle — an identity she would assume once past the blockade.

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Disguising the German Raider Seeadler, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2685-2702:

The initial disguise required more than superficial considerations such as painting a false name on the stern and providing a matching ship’s log to support the ruse. Timber, complete with Norwegian markings, was loaded, and papers forged to show that the vessel was carrying its cargo from Copenhagen to Melbourne. All the deck machinery and all the instruments, including the barometers and the compasses, were stamped with the names of Norwegian companies. The crew’s quarters were decorated with Norwegian scenes and Norwegian papers were left lying about. Norwegian and Danish food was used to stock the galley and Norwegian clothing had been bought for the crew.

Not all the men had to be part of the facade. Those whose role it was to hide below deck if the ship was stopped needed to play no active part in the disguise. The Germans had carefully selected twenty-three sailors who could speak Norwegian and these were the men who would be seen by any British force that came aboard. Each of the men, along with four officers (the total of twenty-seven being the typically sized crew for a vessel such as this) was given a Norwegian name and birthplace and was ordered to study as much as possible about the particular town so that he could answer any reasonable questions about the place. They would not be likely to fool a Norwegian, but then it would not be the Norwegians who would be stopping the Seeadler.

The deception became even more detailed. Letters were written in Norwegian so that each man’s locker contained correspondence from ‘home’ and photographs of loved ones were stamped on the back with the names of photographers in the towns whence they were supposed to come. The men were repeatedly quizzed and tested to make certain there were no mistakes, omissions or inconsistencies in their stories. If he gave the wrong age for a child or the incorrect occupation for his father, a crewman would be punished. Von Luckner knew that British patrols in the North Sea were being constantly stiffened. If a Royal Navy officer walked into the mess area his suspicions had to be immediately allayed by the piles of Norwegian books and records and by the photos of the Norwegian king. As a final touch one of the youngest of the sailors was issued with women’s clothes so that he could play the part of the captain’s wife.

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