New Britain and Timor

Then there was nothing. Dead silence. All I got was a telegram saying he was missing.

[Wife of soldier captured on New Britain, quoted in Margaret Reeson, A Very Long War: The Families Who Waited, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 24.]

Several thousand Australians were captured by the Japanese in early 1942 on the islands of New Britain and Timor where they had been deployed as part of a deeply flawed strategy for defending Australia's north.

In early 1941 when the Japanese posed a growing threat to South East Asia the Australian government sent two brigades of the 8th Division to Malaya. However, it held back one brigade, the 23rd, for defence of the islands to Australia's north. The brigade was split into three battalion-sized forces: Gull, Sparrow and Lark Forces—ominously non-predatory names.

Lark Force was sent to Rabaul on New Britain, the headquarters of the Australian administration of New Guinea, in March/ April 1941. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Gull Force and Sparrow Force were deployed to Ambon and Timor respectively. All three forces, even with the support of local Dutch troops in the case of Ambon and Timor, were too small and poorly equipped to survive the massive Japanese attacks that eventuated in January–February 1942.

Lark Force (the 2/22nd Battalion and supporting troops) managed to resist for only a few hours when the Japanese attacked New Britain on 23 January. After their defeat about four hundred Australians escaped along the north and south coasts of the island. However, the rest of Lark Force, together with civilians who had not been evacuated to Australia, fell into Japanese hands.

About two hundred Australians surrendered to the Japanese in the vicinity of the Tol Plantation. Here the Japanese shot or bayoneted at least 158 of them. More than a thousand other soldiers and civilians were meanwhile interned in the old Lark Force camp at Malaguna.

In June 1942 the Japanese set about removing the prisoners from New Britain. The officers and eighteen women (including some Australian nurses) made the journey to Japan safely and survived the war. However, around 1050 prisoners and civilians loaded onto the Montevideo Maru and bound for Hainan were torpedoed by a US submarine, the USS Sturgeon, off the Philippines coast. All the prisoners perished as did many others being  transported by sea.

The news of the Tol massacre reached Australia in April-May 1942 through the men who escaped from New Britain. Nothing, however, was known of the Montevideo Maru until after the war. In late 1945 families who had waited anxiously for more than three years received the news of the sinking.

It was the longest night of my life [Frank Lyons recalled]. There was nothing you could say to console my mother. There was nobody coming in–when a death occurs, people come and help, don't they? But on an occasion like this, which was so long after my brother died, nobody came. … We were there just the whole night, just myself, my mum and dad and two young sisters.

[Margaret Reeson, A Very Long War: The Families Who Waited, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 62.]

On Timor meanwhile Sparrow Force, consisting of 2/40th Battalion group and the 2nd (later 2/2nd) Independent Company, were defeated shortly after the fall of Singapore. The 2/2nd retreated into the mountains where they conducted a guerrilla war with the support of the local population until they were withdrawn at the end of 1942. However, the 2/40th Battalion was taken prisoner. Perhaps twenty Australians were killed by the Japanese immediately while the rest were concentrated in a camp at Usapa (Oesapa) Besar.

Conditions were at first poor, in that the camp lacked adequate accommodation, cooking facilities, water supply and sanitation. In time food supplies improved through the planting of vegetable gardens, stealing (or 'scrounging') from the docks of Kupang (Koepang), trading with the local people and even (briefly) hunting buffalo with the Japanese. However, almost all prisoners soon became ill with malaria and diseases of malnutrition, including beri beri, avitaminosis, tropical ulcers and scrotal dermatitis.

Under the Sparrow Force's commander Lieutenant-Colonel William Leggatt considerable efforts were put into collecting intelligence with the aim of conveying it to the 2/2 Independent Company still operating in Portuguese Timor. An unsuccessful attempt was also made to escape by commandeering a Japanese DC3 aircraft.

There were also plans in Australia to try and retake Timor and liberate the POWs, but these were not supported by the US commander of the South West Pacific Area, General Douglas McArthur, whose offensive against the Japanese in 1942–45 ultimately bypassed the Netherlands East Indies.

In mid-1942 the Japanese started to move Sparrow Force off Timor, as they did with some of the Australians on Ambon and New Britain. Possibly Timor was too vulnerable to air attacks from Australia and too peripheral in the Japanese empire. In addition, the Japanese wanted to use the prisoners as labour elsewhere in the Asia–Pacific region.

Sparrow Force sailed in three drafts: a small contingent of 50, including 14 officers, in late July; a group of 69 in early September; and finally 924 men and 33 officers in late September.

The experiences of Sparrow Force in the next three years were probably the most diverse of any group of Australian prisoners. They were not kept together but scattered throughout the Asian region: Java, Sumatra, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Sulawesi, Vietnam and Manchuria. When the war ended the largest number of men of the 2/40th was in Thailand. Over four hundred of them worked on the Burma-Thailand railway.

Some 340 men of Sparrow Force died during the war, including 29 per cent of the 2/40th Battalion, a rate slightly lower than Australian prisoners of Japan generally. Nearly 120 lost their lives when the ships on which they were travelling later in the war were sunk by Allied submarines.

The loss of Australian prisoners at sea was little known for many years beyond the survivors and families of those missing. Ceremonies were held at a memorial on Rabaul from as early as 1946. Decades later in 2010 a privately donated plaque to those lost on the Montevideo Maru was unveiled at Subic Bay in the Philippines. In 2012 a major memorial was unveiled in the vicinity of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.


Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), New Britain and Timor, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/australian-prisoners-asia-pacific/new-britain-and-timor
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