Immediately after the outbreak of war in Europe, the Australian Army authorised the formation of an unpaid militia unit, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), which was raised from white residents on 8 September 1939.
Consideration was given to allowing New Guineans to join but the Administration decided, given Australia’s responsibility to protect the indigenous people, that they would not be permitted to fight. On the eve of the outbreak of the Pacific War, the NGVR’s overall strength was twelve officers and 284 other ranks – most of whom were deployed in Rabaul, Salamaua, Bulolo and Wau with headquarters in Lae.
In February 1941, as the threat from Japan was seen with greater clarity, the Australian War Cabinet authorised the despatch to Rabaul of an AIF battalion and the installation of coastal defences. The defence of New Britain, a front of more than 1600 km of coastline, was to be the responsibility of 1399 Australian troops known as Lark Force, which arrived in March and April 1941, from October 1941 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel JJ Scanlan. The garrison consisted predominantly of the 2/22nd Battalion, commanded by Lt Col HH Carr. [Note: The Salvation Army Band was the band of the 2/22nd Battalion.]
The composite Lark Force included the men of the NGVR and 100 personnel of the 17th Antitank Gun Troop. There was a detachment of 2/10 Field Ambulance, which established a camp hospital. Lark Force artillery was meagre: two 6-inch naval guns and two 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. Sundry small headquarters units made up the complement of the force. RAAF 24 Squadron under Wing Commander John Lerew arrived in early December 1941. It was ill equipped with ten lightly-armed Wirraway fighter trainers based at Lakunai airstrip near Rabaul and four Lockheed Hudson light bombers at Vunakanau. The Royal Australian Navy contingent consisted of a small number of base staff commanded by Lieutenant HA Mackenzie of Naval Intelligence.
A commando unit, the 2/1st Independent Company, comprising around 250 officers and other ranks, was detached to garrison the nearby island of New Ireland. About 150 men were based in Kavieng to protect the airfield while others were deployed as observers to central New Ireland, Bougainville and Manus Island as well as to Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands and Vila in the New Hebrides.
When the Japanese invaded, 74 members of NGVR – manning medium machine guns and a mortar – were in Rabaul under the command of the Chinese youths.
Lark Force was not equipped to repel an invasion. It had no sea support, poor air support and little artillery. The infantry units were lightly armed and possessed few mortars or machine guns. The view of the Australian Chiefs of Staff was that, at best, this force could no more than briefly delay a Japanese advance.
The Army Department admitted, in a minute of 2 August 1941, that to secure Rabaul against attack would require a scale of defence beyond the resources at its disposal. Lark Force would be tasked to impede the Japanese advance and the Administration would be tasked to maintain civil order. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7 December, the Chiefs of Staff advised War Cabinet that the Japanese would probably try to occupy Rabaul, Port Moresby, New Caledonia and Darwin. Australia also had small and susceptible forces in Ambon, Timor and Java and a major but equally vulnerable force in Malaya and Singapore. Rabaul could not been seen in isolation. As the Japanese advanced south, in all around 25,000 Australian troops were at risk.
As late as 12 December, War Cabinet considered three courses of action in relation to Rabaul: reinforce the garrison; retain it as it was; or withdraw and abandon the area. The Chiefs of Staff knew it could offer nothing more than token resistance: an official cable referring to “its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune”.
The new Curtin government had inherited decisions made by the Menzies and Fadden governments supported by the Chiefs of Staff. Australian military and political leaders wanted the Dutch, British and Americans to fight in defence of their own colonies and, in such circumstances, felt they could scarcely withdraw from Australia’s own territories.
The government also appreciated the significance of Rabaul in the defence of the southwest Pacific and was completing negotiations for American naval forces to use the port: the building of some facilities had just started when the Japanese struck. Rabaul was the forward observation point for Australia; and the government decided it should be held for as long as possible. While the garrison could provide only token resistance, its presence would compel the Japanese to assemble a significant land, air and sea force. That would take time and would deny the force other immediate options while it secured Rabaul.
The Chiefs of Staff warned they could not provide adequate air or naval support for the evacuation of troops or civilians. Australia also had little capacity to reinforce or resupply the vulnerable troops. The few units that were deployed north early in 1942 went from Australia to Singapore or were diverted, on their return from the Middle East, to Java. Faced with this dilemma, the Chiefs of Staff recommended – and War Cabinet accepted – that Lark Force must remain in Rabaul. It was a decision made in the national interest and it ultimately led to the deaths of perhaps 1500 people.