In their analysis of the fall of Rabaul, the Japanese surmised that the poor resistance was due to a lack of military intelligence and a mistaken calculation that a landing would not occur in that location. But the Chiefs of Staff were aware the Japanese would land at Rabaul and did not feel able to offer more than a token garrison. The Australians force was defeated in this first important battle of New Guinea, fighting against odds of three to one without support from naval or air forces.
As no provision had been made for the escape of Lark Force, the small groups of men faced great difficulties. Only the RAAF had made evacuation plans; its personnel were removed by flying boat. Australian soldiers remained at large in the interior of New Britain for some time.
But Lark Force had placed no supply dumps in the interior, let alone planned for guerrilla warfare. Without supplies, the health and military effectiveness of the escapers declined. Leaflets dropped by Japanese planes stated:
“You can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender.”
Most Australian soldiers were captured or surrendered during the following weeks. Upon capture, most of the men were interned in camp outside Rabaul. Others met with great brutality.
On 4 February, about 160 men were shot or bayoneted at Tol and Waitavalo plantations on the south coast of the Gazelle Peninsula. Six men miraculously survived. The massacre was reported in the Australian press in April. The officer responsible, Colonel Masao Kusunose, later committed suicide.
For the Japanese invaders, the conquest of Rabaul had been an uncomplicated military operation. To Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Japanese Air Force assault, the affair was a waste of the talents of Nagumo Force:
“If ever a sledgehammer had been used to crack an egg, this was the time,” he observed. With the capture of Rabaul, the Japanese commanded a base which became the key staging and supply centre for their plan to dominate the Coral Sea. The Japanese South East Fleet established its headquarters there and, by June 1942, 21,570 troops were stationed in the area, the biggest Japanese base in New Guinea. In 1945 when Japan surrendered there were still nearly 100,000 Japanese troops and auxiliaries in the Gazelle.
Back in Australia, there was considerable disquiet about the fall of Rabaul, Timor and Ambon. A Court of Inquiry into the Japanese landings in these places was conducted in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Ballarat and, in relation to Rabaul, heard from 68 military and civilian witnesses “for the purpose of inquiring into and reporting upon the facts and circumstances associated with the landing of the Japanese forces and events subsequent thereto in New Britain…”
There were nine specific matters to be investigated and general authority to investigate “any other matters” thought desirable. The court also drew upon four previous courts of inquiry relating to Rabaul in which over thirty witnesses had given evidence. The three-volume report of 29 July 1942 led to Minister for the Army Frank Forde noting a number of items of evidence which in his view warranted further investigation. See: http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/imagine.asp?B=239501&1=1&SE=1
He proposed a wider enquiry by an independent investigator on seven points including:
a) The tasks allotted;
b) Whether the forces were properly equipped for their roles and, if proper equipment was not available, whether the forces should have been despatched;
c) The instructions given to the Commanders to give effect to (a);
d) The conduct of Commanders;
e) The evacuation of the civil population from Rabaul
f) Whether, in view of the progress of the Japanese advance, adherence to the plans originally laid down was proper;
g) Whether proper measures were taken to endeavour to rescue the garrisons, particular that at Rabaul’’
Prime Minister Curtin pointed out to Forde on 3 July 1943 that if there was to be a further inquiry it would need to wait until the return of the prisoners of war, including senior military and civil officers who were thought to be held by the Japanese. By June 1946, when the question of an inquiry was debated in Parliament, Curtin had died and it was Ben Chifley who spoke for the government.
The debate on 26 and 27 June covered not just Rabaul, Ambon and Timor but other disasters early in the war. In his speech Chifley did not refer specifically to Rabaul, but to “Dunkirk, Malaya, the Middle East and elsewhere”. He said he did not favour inquiries unless it could be shown that men were corrupt or treasonous rather than fallible and mistaken. Opposition leader Robert Menzies followed Chifley and said that on “post-mortems” he was ready to “personally agree”. While some commentators hold the Curtin Government responsible for the disaster of Rabaul, the failure to have a post-war inquiry being cited as evidence, historian Prof Hank Nelson says the post-war Labor Government had nothing to fear from an inquiry. The Menzies and Fadden Governments had made the decision to deploy the troops to Rabaul (and to other places where over 20,000 men became prisoners) and Curtin inherited those decisions upon his election in October 1941 at a time of military crisis for Australia.
Prof Nelson says the arguments of the Chiefs of Staff for maintaining the force in Rabaul were rational and the government acted in conformity with their advice. War Cabinet minutes record Curtin asking the Chiefs for assurance that everything possible was being done for the men in Rabaul.
But for many of the relatives that there was no subsequent enquiry has remained a source of continuing concern, suspicion and even bitterness . Did Australia fail the civilians of Rabaul and the members of Lark Force? “There can be no doubt that Rabaul was unprepared and hopelessly defended against Japanese invasion,” Timothy Hall wrote.
And, in a view endorsed by many relatives, added: “It was inexcusable that provision was not made by Australia for the evacuation of the civilians.”