Review by Martin Koenigsberg
Just Finished my 53rd Book Review of the Year!!
The 1941 Australian Government knew that Rabaul, the Anchorage on the northern tip of the island of New Britain was important. They had taken the Island off the German Empire in WWI, and were happily exploiting the local copra trade and administering an indigenous population. That’s why they sent a force of 1500 infantry, gunners and airmen to defend it. The Imperial Japanese Navy and Army knew it was important too, and that’s why they sent a divisional sized invasion force supported by land based bombers and Carrier and Battleship/Cruiser groups to take it shortly after Pearl Harbor. Bruce Gamble, a prolific and experienced writer on Military, Aviation, and Pacific War topics tells the story of the resulting mismatch with a modern sense that the force should have been withdrawn. The Aussie leader, Colonel Scanlan, was not prepared for the situation, refusing counsel to stash food in Jungle hides to fight a Guerilla war, hoping to make a stand- and then mentally collapsing- uttering the phrase “every man for himself”- which got turned into a general order. Some were killed outright by the Japanese, some surrendered immediately, many tried to flee into the Jungle for a hoped evacuation. And then it keeps getting worse… The Aussie Government had put an inadequate force in harm’s way, with no support and no evacuation plan. The force itself had not been prepared properly, nor did it really understand that it was a forlorn hope. The Japanese were merciless , and would abuse any and all captives they got- soldiers, nurses and civilians. But up until Pearl Harbor, that predatory behaviour had been directed only at Asians, Koreans, Siamese and Chinese. The Japanese had treated European prisoners well in the Russo Japanese War of 1905 and WWI (they had fought the Germans in the Pacific and Asia)- so the murderous edge of the new Japanese Fascism was not fully recognised by the West until they felt its bite. Those soldiers that did realise that escape was the best option made some amazing passages to freedom. Those that were caught by the IJN/IJA and not murdered outright had a different harrowing story trying to survive as POWs- with one group tragically drowned in the sinking of a Japanese freighter by a USN Sub. The book is full of tragedies, atrocities, Allied mistakes and excessive Japanese terror and violence – and yet the many noble acts of sacrifice and common sense by individual Australian Soldier, Civilians and Indigenous Islanders shine through. This is Gamble’s first work of a trilogy about Rabaul in WWII, and while it is not upbeat fare, it’s an important story and it sets up the reader to understand how it would become Fortress Rabaul, the next book… There are a lot of adult themes , and plenty of graphic descriptions of violence and atrocity, so this is a book best read by the Junior Reader over 13/14 years. For the Gamer/Modeler/Military Enthusiast its a mixed bag. As it is- this is a story of military disaster, not achievement, so one would not game this as it happened- but regaming it based on the Guerilla War concept Scanlan rejected might make a challenging scenario- the Aussies not being victimised but rather fighting a long retreat to a planned evacuation- as might have been possible. The modeler is not given too many build or diorama ideas from this text, but will get a good feel for war in the South Pacific. The Military Enthusiast gets a great many ideas for what NOT to do in a military situation from the Allied side, and a strong lesson in how not to behave as captors or conquerors from the Japanese side. Still, for all its horror and terror, this is an important story of WWII for military history consumers and more general readers who might have forgotten how expensive this war was in material , but most importantly in human life, both those taken too soon and those ruined too early. Not all stories have happy endings- some just come to a close.
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