Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


2/40 Battalion

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to make a contribution to remembering the sacrifice in 1942, some 70 years ago, that members of 2/40 Battalion made in the defence of Australia. In 2006, the 2/40th's historian, Peter Henning, said:

Although the 2/40 Battalion made up a significant proportion of Tasmanian prisoners-of-war and about a third of Tasmanian AIF casualties in the Second World War, there are few memorials to them and scant public awareness of their history.

I acknowledge that two members of the House of Representatives, Messrs Hubert Anthony in 1946 and Dick Adams in July 2004, have both made special mentions of the 2/40th in speeches to parliament. I also thank Peter Henning for his authorship of Doomed and Mrs Sue Beard of Moonah in Tasmania—a relative of a battalion soldier—for their assistance in putting together this speech.

The 2/40 Battalion was almost entirely comprised of Tasmanians and was formed in response to lobbying by veterans of Tasmania's 40th Battalion who had served in the World War I. The nominal roll, which was prepared by those who survived service in the 2/40th, provides details of those young Tasmanians who volunteered: their age, employment, religion, where in Asia these soldiers served and their fate. Amongst those who joined the 2/40th was the then headmaster of Launceston Church Grammar School, Norman H Roff, who was killed in action in Timor, leaving a wife and two young children.

The bulk of the enlistees 'took the King's shilling' in mid-1940 and their typical age was between 19 and 21, meaning that any of the currently living survivors of the 2/40th should be aged 92 or older. But if anecdotes are correct, perhaps the one or two 14 year olds who enlisted might still be living at age 86 or 87. In fact, recently the Advocate newspaper carried a story that one of the younger members of the 2/40th, Fred Brett, was less than fulsome in disclosing his age on enlistment, and that he had celebrated his 16th birthday whilst in Changi prison.

Having assembled in mid-1940 in Brighton, Tasmania, the battalion trained for the next six months in their home state, prior to their transfer to Bonegilla, near Wodonga, where they joined other battalions in the 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division.    There followed a train and truck journey that took them to Adelaide, Alice Springs and then up to Darwin. With the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, the 2/40th was rushed to Timor from Darwin on 10 December, arriving at Koepang to form the bulk of Sparrow Force, charged with defending the airfield at Penfui, the base for the Hudson bombers of RAAF's 2 Squadron.

MP Hubert Anthony in his speech to the House in 1946 spoke about the conditions which the 2/40 Battalion had to endure in Timor. He purported that the battalions in Sparrow Force were not adequately armed or prepared for this battle and backed up these assertions with a report made by then Brigadier Lind, who was in charge of Gull Force, which can be accessed digitally on the Australian War Memorial website. Lind suggested that an inquiry into these circumstances should be made in order for someone to be held accountable and that all information held by the government and the armed forces should be made public to all Australians. No such inquiry was ever held.

A period of eight months was available but not utilised for the battalion to receive adequate resources in the way of armament and personnel, as well as for lines of communication to be opened with the Netherlands East Indies naval and air support. There was no form of air support, as the RAAF squadron left when invasion was imminent, and artillery support was very limited, as was back up arms and munitions. Japanese forces numbered 23,000 against about 4,000 Allied troops.

As a consequence of all these weaknesses in preparations, support and manpower, the 2/40th was ill-prepared to meet a more numerous, professional, and well-equipped Japanese force, which included tanks, and which landed by sea and air on 20 February 1942.    In three days of fighting the 2/40th suffered 84 dead and 132 badly wounded. Japanese casualties were even more serious.    Despite their valiant efforts, when the Japanese delivered the 2/40th commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Legatt an ultimatum to either surrender or be bombed, there was little choice. Consequently, the bulk of 2/40th became prisoners of war. Some members escaped inland, others were later captured, and some joined Australian commandos in the hills and were subsequently evacuated in December 1942. However, the great majority of the 2/40th joined the 22,000 Australian POWs in South-East Asia.

According to Australian War Memorial records:

… the 2/40th prisoners spent the first seven months of their captivity interned in a camp at Usapa Besar. A small party of senior officers was shipped to Java on 26 July and the rest of the prisoners on Timor followed in September.

From Java, the 2/40th prisoners were dispersed throughout Japan's conquered territory. Over 500 of the men from Sparrow Force were sent to Singapore and then off to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Some of the 2/40 men embarked on two ships in January 1943 bound for Moulmein in Burma. American bombers tragically sunk the ship transporting the Dutch POWs and damaged the Moji Maru, which was carrying the Australians, killing seven. Major LJ Robertson, OC of the 2/6 Field Company, commended a handful of prisoners for the assistance that they gave to the organisation and rescue of the Dutch survivors. One of those mentioned was Corporal Wallace Imlach, concrete worker, of the 2/40th who before the war lived in Myrtle Bank near Launceston. Most of the 2/40th Battalion who worked on the railway joined it from the Thai end and hence they no doubt were involved in Hellfire Pass and Hintok viaduct construction, which are now well known to many Australians. Other members of the 2/40th made the long sea journey to Japan to work in labour camps.

The impact of this chapter of World War II on Tasmania was indeed widespread, with losses felt within friendship groups, sporting clubs and families and these losses are still being remembered. The Tasmania Cricket Association news journal of 24 April 2012 exemplifies this. I will read extracts of the 2/40th references:

One member of the 2/40th Battalion was a powerful left hand batsman from Myalla named Les Allen. Allen, the Uncle of the not then born former Sheffield Shield wicket-keeper Les Allen, held one of the highest scores for Myalla Cricket Club, 222 not out against Boat Harbour at Boat Harbour, one of only four known double centuries for the old club.

As the Japanese attacks on Timor increased and the 2 Squadron withdrew, the airfield was razed and the 2/40th retreated inland having had its main supply line by road cut. Amid mounting pressure, the 2/40th surrendered in what became a choice of "surrender or be bombed" leaving Pte. Allen a prisoner of war along with most of the group.

After seven months as a POW, Allen and 266 other Australians were being transferred to Japan along with America and British troops, one of 772 on board the cargo ship SS Tomahoko Maru.

Not displaying flags to show that there were Australians on board and only 40 miles from Nagasaki, the Tomahoko and her convoy was attacked by the US. Allen was one of the 560 on board who did not survive the attack.

Allen's cousin, Jack Moles, was also part of the 2/40th. The pair parted company before getting on the convoy thinking that if separated they had a 50/50 chance that one would get home. Moles served the remainder of the war as a POW and returned home after the war.

When Myalla resumed after the war, Doug, who had only watched one match his elder brother had played, was old enough to play and went on to better his lost brother by scoring 224 not out also against Boat Harbour. Incidentally, the only match Doug watched featuring his brother was the game where Les made his 222 not out.

By the time the war had ended the battalion had lost 264 of its original 920 men. Despite their valiant efforts, members of the 2/40th do not appear to be recognised as they should in Tasmania. The Launceston branch of the RSL has an honour board which lists the names of the 264 of the 2/40th who paid the supreme sacrifice. More recently, on Anzac Day 2012 a plaque was unveiled in North Motton, near Ulverstone. The message on this memorial is a simple one: at the top of the plaque is an Australian flag and the ovular colour patch of white over red, which was proudly displayed by every 2/40th digger.

Then there is written:

In Honour of the men of the 2/40th Battalion 'Sparrow Force'—Tasmania's own—Lest we Forget.

It is important that I record that this plaque is the result of the perseverance of a committee of Ulverstone residents who raised money via cake and raffle sales. There is also a memorial at Green's Beach which is a life-size wood carving of a 2/40 digger standing under a palm tree. All sides of politics would no doubt agree with me that war memorials are vital in honouring the service of men and women for Australia.

I was pleased to read an article in the Mercury last month which detailed plans for a memorial to the 2/40 Battalion in Hobart and I made contact with one of the driving forces behind the push—a Mrs Susan Beard, whose uncle Dennis Scanlon was a member of the battalion but passed away in 2006. The article quoted 91-year-old Doug Jack, a member of the battalion, who was a prisoner of war for 3½ years. Mr Jack's simple request is to see a memorial in Hobart before he and his fellow surviving veterans pass away. Lloyd Harding and Jack Bowden join Doug Jack as the three surviving southern Tasmanian members of the battalion. For the benefit of those three in particular, I am pleased to inform the Senate that the Hobart City Council has approved the group's request for a memorial in the vicinity of other war memorials near Anzac Parade.

The group behind the push for the Hobart memorial hopes to have this memorial established by December, pending the outcome of an application to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is thought that Tasmania has around 15 surviving members of the battalion. Mrs Beard has provided an insight into the special connection they have and they still meet every year on the Sunday nearest to 23 February, on Anzac Day and at Christmas. She says they meet as the 2/40 Battalion. I urge my fellow Tasmanians in parliament as well as their state counterparts to help spread the story of the 2/40 Battalion.