Stranded Australians – History is repeating

Stranded Australians – History is repeating

As the pandemic continues to disrupt lives, there are many Australians overseas who are trying to return home. Barriers include skyrocketing travel costs, and caps placed on hotel quarantine that limit the number of people allowed into the country. There are regular media stories about stranded Australians in Covid hotspots. The situation is completely terrible for those who are experiencing it, but it is not unique. One of the articles I read quoted an ex-pat as saying the government wouldn’t leave Australians stranded in times of war. But the truth is, they did.

The Malay Barrier

Exactly eighty years ago, in 1941, a garrison of Australian soldiers arrived in Rabaul, New Britain. Known as Lark Force, they formed part of the Malay Barrier. This was a strategy by the Australian government to deter Japan from invading Australia. However, Lark Force and their counterpart garrisons in other countries only had old, damaged equipment. They, along with the government, knew they would be able to provide little resistance in real conflict. It soon became increasingly apparent Japan was planning to invade Rabaul as a stepping stone towards conquering Australia. Given how under-resourced they were, the Australian garrison expected evacuation would occur. They were not the only ones.

Rabaul had a thriving ex-pat Australian community at the time. Since New Britain was an Australian Mandated Territory, many missionaries, plantation managers and public servants lived and worked there. Most Australians in Rabaul did not consider Japan a credible threat. They greatly underestimated their technological and fighting capabilities. So when it was suggested in June 1941 that the women and children evacuate voluntarily, few did so. Not only did they not take the risks seriously, but the Australian government were also refusing to fund the evacuation.

Requests for Evacuation

However, by Christmas that year, it was clear the invasion of Rabaul was imminent. The Australian government finally ordered (and paid for) the evacuation of all Australian women and children. They told the male civilians to remain where they were. By this point, the civilian administration had largely moved to Lae, in Papua New Guinea. The acting administrator in Rabaul was Harold Page. His brother Earle had been a caretaker Prime Minister before Curtin took the top job. Earle was now part of the British War Council, and confidently told the Council the Australian government would ‘never stand our men being deserted’. The truth was rather different – the government had decided not to evacuate Lark Force. In fact, by considering them ‘hostages to fortune’, they were consciously abandoning them to their fate.

‘…it is considered better to maintain
Rabaul only as an advanced air
operational base, its present small
garrison being regarded as hostages to

Secret Cable from Prime Minister’s Department to Washington, 12 December 1941.

Meanwhile, his brother was sending urgent telegrams to the Australian War Council in Melbourne, requesting evacuation of the Australian civilians. At first Harold Page’s numerous requests were rebuffed. This was despite the availability of a boat that could have taken all 200 Australian civilians. In fact, the government ordered the boat to keep loading its cargo of copra instead of taking the stranded Australians. (Copra, from coconuts, was a key component in munitions production.) Page persisted with demands for evacuation. Finally, in late January 1942 Australia asked for numbers of Australian civilians. They would ‘consider’ evacuation. By then it was too late – there was no one to receive the message. The Japanese invaded early on the morning of 23rd January. All civilians in Rabaul were taken captive.

Stranded and Captured

Lark Force was also stranded. And when the soldiers asked about the possibility of hiding in the jungle and using guerilla warfare, given overwhelming odds, their commanding officers told them off for defeatist talk. No serious escape plans were made by those in command. Yet the Japanese heavily outnumbered the Australians, and defeat was inevitable. Following the invasion, the lack of cached food and other supplies meant the small number who managed to escape faced serious problems as they fled. Most of Lark Force became Prisoners of War. Some were massacred when they did not immediately surrender.

Politics and Life

In the end, only four of the more than 200 civilians captured by the Japanese were still alive at the end of the war. For Lark Force, the odds were a little better. Aided by the Indigenous people of New Britain and a fleet of civilian boats, some soldiers, and a handful of civilians, made it home eventually. But many more were taken prisoner or massacred. In the end, of 1339 soldiers deployed to New Britain, only 400 survived.

It’s depressing to see that eighty years later little has been learned from the invasion of Rabaul. Lives were lost then because the government was slow to act, and prioritised economic concerns (‘keep loading copra’) over the safety of Australians. Now, while politicians can travel freely to make trade deals, ordinary citizens are stranded and at risk. The time has come to bring them home.

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