Book Review – Invasion Rabaul, by Bruce Gamble

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Invasion Rabaul is the first entry in Bruce Gamble’s three part series on the role of Rabaul (New Britain) during the Pacific War. Invasion Rabaul tells the story of Lark Force, the small Australian force that garrisoned the island from April 1941 until they were overrun by the Japanese in the early hours of 22 January 1942. The story of Lark Force contains many lessons for the contemporary military professional (especially Australians) but is foremost a sombre tale of immense human misery and a desperate struggle for survival.

Lark Force was a small joint task force comprising about 1500 members in total. The 2/22 Battalion (Bn) was raised in mid-1940 as part of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force and formed the nucleus of Lark Force with about 900 members drawn almost exclusively from Melbourne. The other Army attachments included small attachments of anti armour, air defence, coastal artillery and medical capabilities. The RAAF contributed a small attachment of fighters and light bombers. The RAN contributed some communications specialists. This was further supplemented by a company sized militia raised in Rabaul that became known as the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles.

In 1941, Rabaul was an Australian mandated territory and as such the Australia was responsible for its security. Lark Force arrived in Rabaul on 25 April 1941 tasked with preparing the island’s defences in anticipation of a potential conflict in the Pacific. The plan was for a larger force to relieve Lark Force should that conflict eventuate. 

Despite having small numbers of heavy weapons, Lark Force lacked both the right quantity and quality of ammunition to use them to maximum effect. It also had only a small assortment of obsolete aircraft and no armoured fighting vehicles. The risks of this arrangement were understood, however the best equipment was required in North Africa and an agreement was in place through the US Lend-Lease program to supply additional weaponry. 

Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbour, this order was cancelled. Compounding matters, the British strategy in Asia focused on the defence of Singapore. This meant that the bulk of the 8th Division was sent to defend Singapore, leaving only the 23rd  Brigade to defend a string of key locations across the rest of the region. These included Lark Force in Rabaul, Gull Force in Ambon and Sparrow Force in Timor. 

Gamble does a good job of portraying day to day life for Lark Force members immediately prior to the Japanese invasion while contrasting it with the political and strategic decisions that were being made in Washington, London and Canberra that would ultimately decide their fate. 

He also describes the actions and decisions of the commanding officer of the New Guinea Area (NGA) Colonel John Scanlan who ultimately was responsible for the defence of Rabaul. Gamble is highly critical of Scanlan’s leadership but also empathises with his predicament since Scanlan would have known in the days leading up to the invasion that there was no prospect of reinforcements, withdrawal or additional equipment. Yet Lark Force was still expected to defend the island against a numerically superior adversary. 

On the morning of 22 January 1942, the Japanese sent 5500 soldiers ashore to secure Rabaul. They were supported by several hundred aircraft (many of which had participated in the Pearl Harbour attacks) and naval gunfire from over a dozen ships. 

Gamble gives a detailed account of how the battle unfolded over the following hours as Lark Force was quickly overwhelmed. He includes maps of how Lark Force was arrayed around the harbour. After the battle, the Australians fled into the jungle with no supplies, weapons or anti malarial medications. The rest of the book focuses on the following months where several hundred Australians sought to stay alive and escape from New Britain despite the lack of supplies, all while evading the Japanese pursuit.

The book goes on to give a detailed account of the Tol Plantation massacre which is reconstructed from eye witness accounts before describing how roughly 350 soldiers eventually escaped off the island from both the North and South coasts. 

The fate of the Australians who were captured and initially imprisoned as prisoners of war in Rabaul before later being shipped elsewhere is also covered in detail. This covers the full span of the captivity until the end of the war.

Gamble concludes by exploring the aftermath of the defeat and ends by describing it as one of Australia’s worst military defeats. In human terms, Gamble states that 96% of Lark Force were permanent casualties. This figure comprises those who were killed in action, died during the escape, died in captivity, or who escaped but were too sick to be returned to service. Strategically, Rabaul itself became a major air and sea base for the Japanese that took the Allies years to recapture. The 2/22 Bn was never reconstituted and was disbanded immediately after the battle. 

Why should you read this book?

Invasion Rabaul carries many relevant examples for current military professionals. Firstly, it’s set in Australia’s near region in an area that remains important. Secondly, despite or perhaps because of the immense tragedy involved, it shows the best traits of the Australian soldier: a commitment to service despite the odds; the courage to persevere despite horrible conditions, starvation and disease; and, enduring mateship with their peers to help each other survive. 

Other relevant topics within this book include: strategic supply chains (and the risks of a reliance on foreign suppliers during wartime); and, the leadership displayed by the various individuals involved. 

The story of Lark Force is a tragedy but it contains within it many lessons relevant for today. Bruce Gamble does a good job of humanising the events that took place. Invasion Rabaul is a gripping read worthy of a place on any reading list.

About the author: Chris is an Associate Editor at Grounded Curiosity and a currently serving Australian Army officer. Building on a multi-discipline engineering background, his passion is technological development and PME. Chris’ work has previously appeared on Grounded Curiosity, Strategy Bridge and The Cove. Find him on Twitter.