Page 418

Chapter 19: The Loss of Ambon

After Rabaul, Kendari and Balikpapan the next important enemy objective on the eastern flank was Ambon. Initially the Japanese had planned to take it by 6th February, but they had now advanced its place on the time-table.

As mentioned earlier, Australia had agreed as an outcome of talks with Netherlands East Indies staffs early in 1941 to hold troops and air force squadrons ready at Darwin to reinforce Ambon and Timor if the Japanese entered the war; and in consequence, on 17th December, the 2/21st Battalion landed at Ambon. Part of No. 13 Squadron RAAF, with Hudson bombers, had been established there since 7th December.

The 2/21st Battalion, like other units of the 23rd Brigade group, had had a frustrating period of service. With other units of the 8th Division, it had been formed soon after the fall of France, and filled with men eager to go overseas and fight. By March 1941 they had been training for nine months; yet they were still in Australia. It had been a hard blow to the men of the 2/21st that three junior battalions, trained with them at Bonegilla, had already sailed abroad. It was a disappointment when, in March, they were ordered to Darwin to spend perhaps the remainder of the war garrisoning an outpost in Australia. Good young leaders sought and obtained transfers to the Armoured Division, and the Independent Companies then being formed in great secrecy at Foster in Victoria.

In Darwin a proportion of the men became restive and resentful. As had happened during the corresponding period in Malaya, the period of waiting proved a severe test for soldiers who were reading daily of the exploits of their comrades in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria. The number of breaches of discipline in some units increased disturbingly as the months went on. The spirits of the 2/21st Battalion were depressed when on two occasions 10 per cent of its men were sent to the Middle East as reinforcements.

The decision to reinforce Ambon and Timor had presented a difficult problem to Brigadier Lind, the commander of the 23rd Brigade. His task at Darwin, where he was under the command of Major-General Blake of the 7th Military District, was to provide the main defence of the Northern Territory against possible attack by Japan. This in itself was a tall order, considering the Territory’s size and situation; yet in May 1941 he was instructed that if Japan attacked southward, two of his battalions would be dispersed, one to Ambon 580 miles away, one to Timor 500 miles away. Lind and his infantry battalion commanders, Lieut-Colonel Roach (2/21st) and Lieut-Colonel Youl (2/40th) immediately reconnoitred both islands. After this Lind reported to General Blake that the forces were inadequately armed for their tasks, and that a military liaison should be established with the Dutch staff at their main headquarters

Page 419

at Bandung.1 In Melbourne in July, Lind repeated his contentions directly to the Chief of the General Staff, Lieut-General Sturdee, and in October, after a more detailed tactical reconnaissance of the islands, in which the company commanders also took part, he presented a similar viewpoint. He suggested that all requirements for “Sparrow Force” (Timor) and “Gull Force” (Ambon), as they were named, be made the responsibility of an officer appointed to Army Headquarters for that purpose; that this officer should visit or have visited the islands so as to have some idea of the problems involved; and that he should visit them at regular intervals to keep touch.

On 5th December, three days before the Japanese onslaught from Pearl Harbour to Malaya, the Netherlands Indies Government asked Australia to send aircraft to Ambon and Timor in accordance with the long-standing agreement. The Australian War Cabinet approved, and, at dawn on 7th December, two flights of Hudson (of No. 13 Squadron) flew to Laha field on Ambon and one flight (of No. 2 Squadron) to Koepang.2 That day Brigadier Lind, at Darwin, received orders to move the 2/21st Battalion to Ambon and the 2/40th to Timor. They became detached forces operating under the direct command of Army Headquarters in Melbourne. The brigade headquarters, the 2/4th Pioneer Battalion,3 the 2/14th Field Regiment, and parts of the ancillary units of the brigade group were all that remained of the brigade in the Northern Territory, although it was soon reinforced with militia units from the south.4

Page 420

“Gull Force”, commanded by Colonel Roach, consisted of the 2/21st Battalion and 213 men in detachments of anti-tank artillery, engineers and other arms and services. Roach felt no less keenly than Lind about the need for adequate planning, coordination and equipment. On 13th December he wrote to Major Scott,5 who was staff officer for his force at Army Headquarters, to say that there had been insufficient reconnaissance, and that he had not enough anti-tank guns and no field guns. He asked for a troop of 25-pounders, two more anti-tank troops, six more mortars, antiaircraft guns “if available”, two additional infantry companies and more automatic weapons “if you can spare them”. The letter ended with the postscript: “As a test of communications could you acknowledge this please.”

On 17th December – the day Gull Force disembarked at AmbonRoach again wrote to Scott listing deficiencies in the arms and equipment of the force, and concluding “Health and morale good”. On the 23rd he sent the following signal to Army Headquarters, Melbourne:–

Imperative to have at once all those items mentioned para. K [guns and machine-guns] plus a further Field Troop. When will they arrive? No items mentioned other paras yet arrived. Surgical equipment inadequate refer Col. Barton.6

What was the task which seemed to Colonel Roach to demand so urgently the additional equipment and reinforcements for which he asked? The island on which Gull Force was established is 386 square miles in area, and 32 miles long. It is just below the western end of the much larger island of Ceram, and is in a central position between New Guinea, Timor, Celebes, and Halmahera Islands. Slanting from south-west to north-east, the larger portion of the island is joined by the Paso Isthmus to the smaller portion, Laitimor Peninsula, which resembles an undershot lower jaw. Between the upper (Hitu Peninsula) and lower jaws is the deep Bay of Ambon, about 10 miles long, and capable of sheltering a large fleet. At the head of this is Binnen Bay, which was used as a seaplane alighting area, with a base on its southern shore, at Halong, about three miles north of the town of Ambon.

Laha airfield was on the Hitu Peninsula, about half-way along the northern shore of the Bay of Ambon, and there was a newly-constructed landing ground near the northern extremity of the island, at Liang. Thus the island had much to offer as a base either for the Allies or the Japanese.

The island was one of the outer possessions of the Netherlands East Indies. The Portuguese founded a settlement on it in 1521, it was taken over by the Dutch in 1605; and British and Dutch administration alternated until in 1814 it was restored to the Dutch. In the early days of its

Page 421

The invasion of Ambon

The invasion of Ambon

European administration it was important chiefly as a centre of the spice trade. Extremely rugged and jungle-covered, it was traversed only by paths and tracks, with the exception of a primary road from Latuhalat across the toe of the Laitimor Peninsula to its bay shore, thence to the town and the head of Binnen Bay. There it bifurcated, one part running across the northern portion of the island to a flat area of the north coast at Hitu-lama, and the other towards Liang.

The Dutch garrison of the Molucca Archipelago was mainly concentrated on Ambon, and the island’s garrison had been reinforced also from Java. By the end of December the Netherlands Indies forces on the island, commanded by Lieut-Colonel J. R. L. Kapitz, numbered about 2,600 men. They comprised several small companies of Indonesian troops, mainly officered by Dutchmen, and some Dutch coast artillery. The companies were below strength, and lacked their full complement of commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Gull Force had a total strength of about 1,100.7 Kapitz became commander of all forces on Ambon, Dutch and Australian.

Page 422

The principal fortifications were at Paso, on the Paso Isthmus, to deny entry from the north and east to the Laitimor Peninsula, inclusive of the town of Ambon. At Benteng, adjacent to the town, was a battery manned by Dutch permanent artillerymen. It was emplaced in concrete, with its accommodation and telephone system underground, and commanded the Bay of Ambon and the Laha airfield. The aircraft based on the island in December included some American and Netherlands Navy flying-boats, some Dutch bombers, and two fighters, as well as the Hudson bombers of No. 13 Squadron RAAF. The flying-boats were at Halong and the others at Laha and (by mid-December) at Namlea on Buru Island. Mines had been laid to hamper enemy access to important positions in the Bay of Ambon and to Paso and the Laitimor Peninsula from the east. The only naval vessels stationed at the island were two motor-boats taken over from the harbourmaster.

Gull Force, at first accommodated mainly at Tantui camp, a little north of the town of Ambon, had been allotted positions in both the east and the west of the island, interposed with those of the Dutch force. This was the situation when Colonel Roach, on 23rd December, sent a third appeal for more arms and men. On the 24th Roach sent a signal stating that his previous messages had not been acknowledged and adding:

Present combined army forces inadequate hold vital localities more than day or two against determined attack from more than one direction simultaneously. To be of any appreciable value we consider imperative have following additional forthwith.

The reinforcements he sought included two troops of field and two of anti-tank artillery (there was no mobile artillery on the island), six mortars, four medium machine-guns, bush nets and medical equipment. He pointed out that anti-aircraft guns would be useful, and carriers had not arrived, adding:

Owing enemy strategy now employed indications are this position will be precarious even with above additional if adequate support other services NOT provided. Would appreciate indication proposed policy.

This signal and a report of the same day in which Roach had mentioned deficiencies in rations and of certain types of ammunition, drew a reply from the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major-General Rowell, on 26th December:–

Concerned at your remarks regarding ammunition and food reserves since adequate supplies were dispatched Ambon before your arrival. Carriers left direct for Ambon 19/12 anticipate arrive first week January. Additional units you ask for not repeat not available. Your task in cooperation with local Dutch forces is to put up the best defence possible with resources you have at your disposal.

This clearly meant that what Gull Force had or was about to receive was all that could be spared to enable it to “put up the best defence possible”. On the 27th (ten days after the arrival of Gull Force) Army Headquarters signalled “send dispositions combined forces”. Roach complied,

Page 423

and on the 29th sent a further signal saying that they would do their utmost, and adding:–

Additional requested would make immeasurable difference this strategically important centre as feel confident enemy will waver before Australian fire and bayonets. All most eager administer salutary punishment.

However, in a letter to Scott on 1st January, Roach wrote more pointedly:–

I find it difficult to overcome a feeling of disgust, and more than a little concern at the way in which we have seemingly been ‘dumped’ at this outpost position .. . without any instructions whatever8 . . and ... with (so far) a flat refusal to consider any increase in fire-power and the number of troops, whilst the cooperation and assistance from the other two arms of the Service must be of very limited value indeed.

On the 3rd January Army Headquarters signalled to Roach that large supplies of ammunition and rations had been on the way for some weeks (evidently Rowell’s signal of the 26th December referred to these supplies, about which Roach had not been informed).

On the night of 6th–7th January seven Japanese flying-boats dropped thirty-three bombs at three points on Ambon. Two Hudsons, a Buffalo fighter and a workshop were damaged at Laha airfield; three native civilians but no soldiers were killed.

Four days later Roach sent a signal indicating that a Japanese attack on the island was expected soon, saying that “prospects are gloomy” and suggesting that Colonel Leggatt9 (of the 2/40th in Timor) and he should fly to Darwin, furnish information and discuss a plan. Also on the 11th January Area Combined Headquarters at Halong10 sent a signal to Melbourne pointing out that Japanese air bases were now established about 360 miles distant, and urgently requesting “immediate reinforcements by fighters and dive bombers”. It suggested Tomahawks and Wirraways in

Page 424

the largest numbers possible and added “only token resistance possible with present unsuitable aircraft all of which will certainly be destroyed in one day’s action against carrier-borne forces”.11

On the 13th January Roach sent a signal to headquarters in Melbourne that “in view of overwhelming enemy combined forces successfully operating Menado area and indications early attack on similar scale here we could NOT hold out for more than ONE day”; that he understood that no such support as he had asked for could be expected; and that to avoid purposeless sacrifice of valuable manpower and arms he recommended immediate evacuation of the combined force.

Army Headquarters replied that Roach’s messages “should cease at once”, and added “your staunch defence will have important effect ... in regard future Australian Dutch cooperation”. Next day Roach received a signal that Major Scott was flying to Darwin and would take over command of Gull Force; Roach to return to Southern Command.

General Sturdee told General Wavell about this situation. Wavell replied, on the 15th:–

So far as I can judge position at Ambon not critical and in any case I am opposed to handing out important objectives to enemy without making them fight for it. Quite appreciate feelings of lonely garrison but am sure Australians will put up stout fight whatever happens. No doubt it is wise to change commander. If circumstances allow hope fly there for short visit soon.

Scott, 53 years of age and thus some years older than the oldest battalion commander in the AIF, had served on Gallipoli, had been an outstanding company commander in fighting in France in 1916, 1917 and 1918, and for a period, as a captain, had commanded a battalion in action. Between the wars he served for a year in the militia infantry and later as a staff officer. In June 1940 he was appointed to the general staff at Melbourne.


Meanwhile, on Ambon the local defence plan had been rearranged. On 10th January Colonel Roach sent his second-in-command, Major Macrae,12 to a conference with Kapitz, who said his company commanders had told him they could not work successfully with Australian companies. This was attributed to language difficulties, presumably as between Australians and Indonesians. Roach, with his Indian Army experience in mind, wanted to put his troops among the Indonesians. His dispositions provided for one Australian company at Laha, one at Paso, and one in reserve. Kapitz, however, offered the Australians a choice of two sectors, either to be taken over entirely by them. One was a line across the upper

Page 425

part of the island, from Paso to Hitu-lama; the other south of the town, in the vicinity of Mount Nona in the south-western portion of the Laitimor Peninsula, and also the Laha airfield, where “C” Company (Captain Sandy13) had been stationed since arrival. The latter sector was accepted.

An Australian rifle section, with engineers and two Bren carriers, was accordingly allotted to an outpost position at Latuhalat, on the southern shore of the Laitimor Peninsula near its south-western tip. It was hoped that it would be able to hamper any attempted landing there, and if necessary fight a delaying action in any Japanese thrust across the peninsula towards Ell. Eri, on the bay shore, was to be defended along a steep and lengthy line by “A” Company (Major Westley14). A platoon of “B” Company under Lieutenant Chaplin,15 was to be stationed at Cape Batuanjut, between Eri and Amahusu. Battalion headquarters and “D” Company (Captain Newnham16) were to occupy a 2,800-yard line dipping sharply from the Nona plateau to the beach at Amahusu, between Eri and the town of Ambon. Newnham’s company was ready with vehicles loaded either to move forward to Eri or north to Benteng hill, south of Ambon. Seeing danger of his position being commanded by enemy troops who might seize the Nona plateau, 1,600 feet above it, Newnham obtained agreement that the pioneer platoon (Lieutenant Jinkins17) be posted there. The transport and other details, and the 104th Light Aid Detachment, were to be at Kudamati, on a slope near the southern outskirts of the town. “C” Company (now under Captain Watchorn18), with “B” Company (Captain Perry19) less one platoon were to defend Laha airfield, which was the Australians’ main responsibility. Also at Laha were about 300 troops of the Dutch force, with two Bofors anti-aircraft guns.

On the ground that the main attack was likely to be from the deep indentation made by the Bay of Baguala on the east, the principal Dutch forces were to occupy positions at and near Paso, which was to be held stubbornly. In the view of the Dutch command, a Japanese landing on the steep, jungle-covered south coast of the Laitimor Peninsula was impracticable, and Laha was militarily inaccessible by overland routes. A company and a mortar unit were assigned to oppose any landing at Hitulama, and to delay with the support of other troops any thrust across country towards Paso from that direction. Another company was allotted to the Australian left flank at Eli as a result of subsequent developments.

Page 426

The Dutch positions, and the Australian positions on the Laitimor Peninsula, were designed to cover the main approaches to the town. Resort to guerrilla warfare if the positions could not be held was “contemplated” by Kapitz, but no plans for guerrilla resistance were made.

Owing in part to neglect of precautions, there was considerable wastage among the Australians at Laha from malaria and dysentery. Among the victims was Captain Sandy, who late in January was evacuated to Australia. He was replaced on 20th January in command of the companies at Laha by Major Newbury.20

The change in the dispositions of the defending forces had entailed digging new defence works and reorganising communications and supply. It placed the Australian and Dutch companies in unfamiliar positions. But perhaps the most disturbing factor for Gull Force was the sudden change of command. Having recommended to the Director of Military Operations that Roach be recalled, Scott had offered to command Gull Force himself and had been appointed. He reached Ambon on the night of the 16th, and Roach accepted an opportunity to fly to Darwin early next morning. Thus Scott took over, at a critical period in the Japanese southward thrust, a force which had just been re-disposed, and whose officers and men were strangers to him. There was naturally considerable resentment among the members of Gull Force at Roach having been recalled. Fortunately the second-in-command, Major Macrae, was a capable and tactful officer, for whom the force had a high regard.


The Japanese air raid on Ambon Island on 6th–7th January was probably part of the prelude to their landings at Menado and Tarakan on the 11th. Thereafter enemy air raids on Ambon had increased in number and strength. Both the Dutch fighters were shot down on 15th January. In a daylight raid by 36 aircraft on the 16th some of the Hudsons were destroyed on the ground and two riflemen and two signallers of the 2/21st Battalion were killed. Because of the Japanese preponderance in the air, and on the grounds that the flying-boat base had been made useless by bombing, the Dutch naval aircraft were withdrawn that day; the American airmen left soon after.

In these raids the two Bofors guns manned by the Dutch – the only anti-aircraft guns on the island – achieved disappointing results. The Australians tried to defend Laha with Lewis guns supplemented, after the seaplane base at Halong had been abandoned, with heavy machine-guns from Catalina flying-boats, on improvised mountings.

The Japanese had made extensive air reconnaissances, and Scott regarded attack by the convoy at Menado as imminent. Among the difficulties of the situation, as Scott saw them, were that Gull Force was widely distributed and the country was very steep and tangled; the only means of transport between Gull Force headquarters at Tantui and the Laha

Page 427

airfield was the Dutch harbourmaster’s launch. Scott complained later that there was no plan for storage of food, water, or ammunition in the hills where guerrilla resistance could if necessary be maintained in the final stages of the defence.

On the 24th January – the day of the Japanese landing at Kendari – 35 aircraft from the carriers Soryu and Hiryu attacked Ambon. It was the first task these carriers had undertaken since the attack on Pearl Harbour and Wake Island. Two other carriers (Shokaku and Zuikaku) of the Carrier Fleet were then supporting the attack on Rabaul. The use of carriers at Rabaul had been desirable because of its distance from land-based aircraft. Their use at Ambon and later Timor and Darwin was evidently a result of caution – hardly justified by the facts – about those bases where Australian air and land forces were deployed. In this phase it was only against such bases that the Carrier Fleet was employed.

The evacuation of the few remaining serviceable Hudsons of No. 13 Australian Squadron began on 28th January. Soon no air or naval support would remain.21

The approach to Ambon Island of a Japanese convoy, estimated at five warships and seventeen transports, with five unidentified vessels some hours astern, was reported by Australian airmen on 29th January. On Dutch orders, the Australian engineers destroyed naval oil reserves, and oil and bomb dumps, hangars, and equipment at Laha. They sought to make the surface of the airfield unserviceable. Shortly before dusk on the 30th, Jinkins and his men on Nona sighted ships off the coast of the Laitimor Peninsula.

There followed, during the night, two Japanese landings, by marines at Hitu-lama and by an army regiment on the southern coast of the Laitimor Peninsula. By choice of these points the enemy avoided any major opposition on the beaches, and grasped the initiative, though the southern landing would necessitate traversing extremely rugged country served only by rough tracks. The defenders were at the disadvantage that, having an insufficient number of troops to man the coastline generally, their forces were committed to certain points which had seemed most vulnerable to attack, and to a largely static defence, unless they could be redistributed with sufficient speed once the Japanese plan became apparent.

To reinforce Paso against thrusts from the north-west and from the south, Kapitz withdrew to Paso the Dutch company at Hitu-lama, and one on the road to Liang, leaving only platoons for delaying actions. Only small detachments of the Dutch forces were in the vicinity of the south coast landings.

At Hitu-lama, the defending infantry and machine-gunners were quickly overwhelmed as Japanese troops swarmed ashore, and mortars were captured

Page 428

while an attempt was being made to get them back to Paso. Bridges on the road which were to have been destroyed were left intact, allowing the landing force to thrust quickly across the Hitu Peninsula.

Successive landings occurred on the Laitimor Peninsula, principally at Hutumori due east of the town of Ambon, and south of Paso. Once ashore, the Japanese split forces for thrusts westward to the town, and northward to Paso. Captured Ambonese were forced to act as guides.

The Paso defences had been designed principally against attack from the north and the west; they were now being attacked from the south. The roadless jungle-covered terrain to the south had been thought to be a defence in itself against assault from that direction. For this reason, and because of the concealment it had been thought desirable to retain against air attack, there had been insufficient clearing for fields of fire. It soon became apparent, however, that the Japanese were capable of astonishingly quick progress over such country, and that concealment was far more important to them as an aid to infiltration than it was as cover to the defenders.

As an instance, Japanese troops arrived within 100 yards of the Paso southern flank without having been detected, and entered a gap caused by dispatch of a platoon to aid in resisting an attack on Batugong, a fortified position on the line of approach from the south. The gap had been left owing to failure of the telephone line to staff headquarters. Batugong fell early in the morning of the 31st and the Japanese were thus able to encircle troops on the eastern flank of the Paso position. The Dutch forces were not equipped with means of radio communication, and their telephone system was quickly affected by the efficiency of the Japanese in cutting the lines. Colonel Kapitz, and the commander of the Paso position, Major H. H. L. Tieland, soon lost a general view of how the situation was developing.

At noon Kapitz transferred his headquarters from near Halong to Paso. While the thrusts from the south were developing, an attack from the east on the Paso defences by portion of the force which had landed at Hitulama set in. Confusion caused by failure of communications, and by surprisingly swift attack from unexpected quarters, had a demoralising effect. Resistance at some points was slight or not sustained, and such counterattack as was attempted failed to stave off encirclement of the Paso defences.

A perimeter defence by units which remained in action was finally ordered, but towards the end of the afternoon the commanders of the units found that communication with the Paso headquarters had failed. It later transpired that both Kapitz and Tieland with their staffs had left the headquarters. At 6 p.m. a motor-cycle with sidecar was seen on the road to the west of the Paso position showing white flags and travelling towards the Japanese. Firing on the Paso perimeter was suspended on the orders of the Dutch company commanders, and the troops were allowed to rest and eat. Tieland visited them, however, with an order to recommence

Page 429

fighting, on the ground that the white flag had not been accepted by the enemy.

After a conference between Tieland and the company commanders, it was agreed that execution of the order be postponed while two of the commanders went with him to see Kapitz, at the Lateri Battery, on Binnen Bay near Halong. Giving an account later to Scott of what had happened, one of Kapitz’s company commanders said Kapitz complained that reports to him by his officers had made the situation appear worse than it really was when he decided to show the white flag. He considered that they had been intimidated by the bold action of small numbers of Japanese who had penetrated the lines, and was ashamed that fighting had been given up so soon. The officers with the white flags had not succeeded in reaching the enemy, who apparently were not inclined to open up negotiations. However, after one of the commanders had testified to the seriousness of the fighting of which he had knowledge, it was agreed that a waiting-and-prepared-for-action attitude be assumed in the last occupied positions in the Paso area.

When Tieland and the company commanders returned to the position, they found that the resting troops had been taken prisoner by a Japanese unit. These officers were told that they must consider themselves prisoners also.

The Australians had received from Dutch headquarters before 3 a.m. on the 31st a report that the enemy had landed on the south coast of the Laitimor Peninsula. Jinkins reported from Mount Nona at daylight that ships were apparently anchored off the coast, and warships were patrolling the coast and across the mouth of the Bay of Ambon. Thus the threat was from the east, whereas the southern dispositions on the peninsula had been designed to meet one from the bay. Kapitz therefore ordered an Ambonese company under Captain E. P. Bouman from Eri, where it had just been sent to the left flank of Westley’s company, to Kudamati, which now seemed likely to become the front-line instead of the rear. Lieutenant Russell,22 liaison officer at Dutch headquarters, reached the Australians during the morning of the 31st with a report that the headquarters staff had left the town of Ambon. He said they had left intact maps and telephones, which he then destroyed.23

Page 430

Scott ordered Captain Turner,24 second-in-command of Westley’s company, to take charge at Kudamati, and that engineer, army service, ambulance, pay and postal personnel quartered in and north of the town of Ambon should move into the position. On the ground that, as events were shaping, effective control would be difficult to maintain from Amahusu, he decided to move his headquarters to Efi. Turner disposed Bouman’s company to defend the approach to Mount Nona.

Japanese troops were seen occupying the hospital, less than half a mile north of the Kudamati position, about 4 p.m. on the 31st. They were fired upon, but with poor results as they were too far away. Next day (Sunday) Japanese army vehicles were seen moving up the road to the hospital. With them were two Australian ambulance trucks. Captured troops were seen alighting from the vehicles. It thus appeared that the town, and the Australian casualty clearing station in it, had fallen into Japanese hands. The Kudamati position came under shell fire.

Japanese advancing from the town towards Kudamati were hotly engaged by transport men under Lieutenant Smith25 early on Sunday morning (1st February), and withdrew. The Japanese then commenced an outflanking movement in the same direction which threatened to drive a wedge between the Kudamati position and the Benteng Battery to the west, with which there was no liaison. A runner was sent to a warrant-officer in charge of a party of Australians so placed that they might be able to counter this threat. The officer and most of his command, including the only two signallers there, could not be found. The situation was made worse by the fact that the telephone lines to Australian headquarters had been cut, it was assumed by artillery fire.

When a request was made to Bouman for aid in dealing with the threat, it was found that his company had lost heavily in machine-guns as a result of Japanese shelling, and that most of his troops had disappeared. Bouman nevertheless undertook to give the necessary cover.

Benteng Battery, which since daylight had been under fire from mountain guns on near-by heights, itself ceased fire about 9 a.m., and it became apparent that the guns were being disabled. With this vital defensive position out of action, the enemy concentrated the full power of their artillery upon the Kudamati position, instead of exposing their troops in further attempts to storm it. Japanese vessels entered the bay. A mine-sweeper struck a mine, broke in half and sank swiftly.

Owing to their hurried transfer to Efi, and then to Kudamati, many of Bouman’s Ambonese had gone without several meals, and were very fatigued. After going to Scott for information early on Sunday, Bouman came under fire when attempting to rejoin his men. Late in the day, he found the company’s machine-gun position deserted. Shell craters and bullet holes indicated that it had been under heavy fire. After dark,

Page 431

Bouman reached the company’s main position, where there remained only the officer in command, some NCOs, and a few soldiers. He was informed that the position had been attacked by parties of Japanese, and shelled by mortars and mountain artillery. The greater part of the troops had disappeared during the night 31st January-1st February. Bouman ordered that the remaining troops should endeavour to safeguard the Australian right wing, and next morning set out again to see Scott.

The Kudamati position, inclusive of “B” Echelon with much of the battalion’s ammunition, stores, and transport, was in fact being by-passed by the night of 31st January. The Amahusu line had been readjusted when it became apparent that its rear was to become its front. A patrol was dispatched on Sunday morning along the road towards Kudamati when a report was received that that position had been cut off. The patrol became engaged with the enemy, and fell back to a position where it could make a stand. An attempt was made to get the wounded men of the patrol by ambulance to Ambon hospital, but the driver was halted by the Japanese, and returned with a letter from a Japanese commander stating that no wounded would be allowed through until after the Australians had surrendered; also that Colonel Kapitz had surrendered with his force, and the Australians were hopelessly outnumbered.

Attacks on the left flank of the Amahusu position continued throughout the day. A party comprising cooks and headquarters mess details, placed under Sergeant Martin26 in a position covering the road approach from Ambon, held up the enemy advance for a while. Martin and others relayed mortar fire control orders to a mortar position under Sergeant Smith27 up the line. This fire, and rifle grenades from his party, dispersed the Japanese.

In the early afternoon Captain Newnham’s headquarters and Sergeant Smith’s mortars were under small arms fire. Soon after 4 p.m. the platoon (Lieutenant Chaplin) from Batuanjut was sent forward to the Amahusu position and relieved Sergeant Martin’s hard-pressed detachment.

From this time onwards (wrote Newnham soon afterwards) many Dutch and Ambonese troops were drifting back from Kudamati and Batumerah; some even stated they were from Paso direction. It was estimated that by 1800 hrs over 100 troops had been fed and watered, the majority saying they had not been fed for two days. Confusion was caused by these troops coming through fire positions, many being in a panicky state; some were directed out of the line, but many were placed in fire positions, and others were sent to the Intelligence officer (Lieutenant Chapman28) for employment around Position H.Q.29

Meanwhile Mount Nona reported that Japanese were appearing on the Nona plateau, and a platoon less a section, under Lieutenant Anderson,30

Page 432

was sent to aid Jinkins’ platoon, a platoon being sent forward from Eri to replace Anderson’s. On the plateau, Anderson and a corporal were moving ahead of the others when they were attacked by Japanese with hand grenades, and Anderson fell, hit in the legs. He told the senior NCO, a corporal, that he was done for and that the corporal should do the best he could for the platoon. The corporal returned to the men and led them back to the line.


Jinkins’ platoon had been attacked by Japanese who got to within 30 yards before being challenged. They tried to deceive the Australians by replying that they were Ambonese but without success; a Japanese bullet killed Sergeant Kay.31 The rush of enemy troops was stopped with grenades and fire from sub-machine-guns, and they were driven back yelling loudly. Thrusts at the platoon’s flanks were defeated, despite heavy mortar fire directed at the Australian position.

Jinkins shouted to Anderson during the attack in an effort to discover if he was near. When Anderson replied, Jinkins and a few of his men were facing a charge by forty or fifty Japanese in close formation. Bowling grenades, and then discharging them from rifles as the Japanese receded, they drove them off. Disregarding Anderson’s call to them not to bother about him, Jinkins and two others found him gravely wounded, and weak from loss of blood. Although they came under heavy machine-gun fire, and Anderson fainted during the rescue, they got him to their position.

During the night, Jinkins moved his platoon 100 yards westward. At daylight on 2nd February from his point of vantage he saw that the Kudamati position had been vacated, and that the Japanese who had attacked his platoon had occupied the position it had left.32 Runners whom he had dispatched to battalion headquarters had not returned. Later in the morning Japanese warships were seen shelling positions to which the battalion had withdrawn, and Jinkins decided to endeavour to lead his platoon to them.

At 10.30 p.m. on the 1st Colonel Scott telephoned Captain Newnham and asked him to think over a suggestion that in view of the enemy’s possession of Nona, Newnham’s company should fall back to Eri “where the unit could make a stand for two or three days”. Newnham consulted his officers, and then told Scott that he agreed. An hour later, at midnight 1st–2nd February, the movement began. Scott hoped that air or naval support from Australia might arrive next day, in consequence of the message which he understood had been sent from Laha to Army Headquarters.

The withdrawal was complicated by the presence of the troops who had entered the Amahusu line from Dutch positions. While it was in progress, a barrage of mortar fire was maintained against the enemy, until the weapons became too hot for use. The last platoon to withdraw countered

Page 433

a Japanese attack with hand grenades, and close-range fighting occurred in one of the trenches. Captain Major,33 second-in-command of Newnham’s company, which now had attached to it some Indonesians to whom owing to difference in language it was difficult to convey orders, was the last to leave the line. Despite the nearness of the Japanese, he marched his men to Eri, which he reached at daylight on the 2nd.

Enemy seaplanes had strafed the Eri positions, and the Japanese warships shelled them constantly. These attacks, and a grass fire started by the shelling, caused some withdrawals. Unrest became evident among the Australians on the 2nd. Some asserted that there had been too much “sitting down and taking it”, and that they wanted to “get stuck into them”. Seaplanes were machine-gunning the road. In the circumstances, Scott decided to evacuate the road positions, and get everybody up the near-by hill, thus consolidating his force.

The position was reviewed at a lengthy conference between Scott, Macrae, Westley, and Newnham after nightfall. Among the factors considered were exhaustion of the troops, especially those from Amahusu; food and water scarcity, now that the position was so crowded with Australian and other troops; the difficulty, owing to the nature of the terrain, of making any effective counter-attack at night; and the likelihood of heavy losses under bombardment if the troops remained where they were.

It was apparent that all commanders and officers present were nearing exhaustion (wrote Newnham later) and on two occasions a senior officer dropped off to sleep through sheer fatigue. The conference lacked a definite spirit and I can recall saying to the C.O. that in my present condition, having only had four hours’ (approx.) sleep since Thursday, 29 January (it was then 8 p.m. on Monday) it was difficult to think along offensive lines.

Capitulation was discussed, but Major Macrae strongly opposed it on the grounds that negligible casualties had as yet been inflicted on the battalion, and the troops round Eri had not even joined battle.

Scott withheld a decision that night, except to authorise Macrae to lead a fighting patrol of twenty-three to Latuhalat, from which the patrol stationed there had returned stating that the Japanese had landed in the vicinity of their position. Macrae’s party, some of them so exhausted that they fell asleep as soon as they stopped moving, reached at dawn a gorge intersecting the road above Latuhalat. The bridge over the gorge had been destroyed by the patrol, so Macrae halted his men there, in a banana plantation, to attack any Japanese attempting to cross the gorge at this point. After he and others had slept for a few hours, Macrae sampled some nuts he found while looking for bananas to feed his party, and became violently ill. Lieutenant Chapman, who was with him, sent to Eri for a stretcher, and was told by the bearers when they arrived that the battalion was going to surrender. He was given permission by Macrae to escape with twenty members of the party. Macrae, accompanied by a warrant-officer and a sergeant, was carried back to Eri.

Page 434

Some Australians had left the Eri line during the night and the early morning of 3rd February. Scott concluded that if the troops generally remained in the position they would be bombed and shelled with no prospect of retaliation. The supply position was critical. The Japanese flag was seen flying over the Laha position. Scott therefore dispatched the battalion’s medical officer, Captain Aitken,34 to the enemy lines to obtain ire terms of surrender.35

With supplies of food and ammunition exhausted, and their position tut off, Turner and his men at Kudamati surrendered at noon.

On Mount Nona, as it appeared impossible to get Anderson in his wounded condition down the steep cliff which the platoon must descend in withdrawing, two men – Privates Buchanan36 and Wakeling37 – volunteered to carry him by a more practicable route leading to the Japanese lines. Of 500 Japanese whom they encountered, 400 marched back by compass-bearing to the Benteng barracks with the stretcher in front. Two Japanese carried it towards the end of the trip.

The remainder of Jinkins’ platoon found Amahusu village empty, with the exception of an Indonesian who said that the Japanese had captured Eri, and driven the Australians to the toe of the peninsula. One of the Australians (Private Lewis38) walking to Eri for medical aid, came upon a Dutch officer bearing a note from Kapitz to Scott to tell him that the Dutch had surrendered on the 1st February. With this was a message from the Japanese to the effect that they had decided to cease hostilities until noon next day; and urging Scott to give in.

Hearing no sound of fighting at Eri, the Dutchman returned to Amahusu with Lewis, where they parted. Lewis reported to Jinkins at a spot where the platoon was hiding, and he thereupon decided that he should get the note and make sure Scott saw it. Securing a bicycle, Jinkins rode into a Japanese road-block, and asked for a “shogun”,39 meaning someone in authority. An officer arrived who could speak English, and sent Jinkins under escort to the Benteng barracks, where he was taken to a Major Harikawa. The major took Jinkins to see Anderson, who had been fed and given medical treatment; then to the Residency, where General Ito of the 38th Japanese Division had established himself. Later Jinkins was taken to see Kapitz, who wrote a second note to Scott. An attempt was made by a Japanese to get information from Jinkins, who counted ten before he answered questions, and then gave non-committal answers.

Page 435

Drawing his sword, the Japanese said “Why do you answer so slowly?”, and received the reply “Because you don’t speak good English”. The Japanese looked insulted, but replaced his sword and walked away. Then Harikawa drove Jinkins to the Amahusu line, told him there were no Japanese past this point, and gave him a captured AIF motor-cycle to use. Shaking hands with him, he said: “If you do not come back, I hope we shall meet in the field.”

Jinkins found that Scott had already been in touch with the Japanese, and was about to march the battalion to an area forward of the Amahusu line. Although Scott gave Captain Bouman an opportunity to surrender with his remaining men before the Australians did so, Bouman declined it, and took part in the Gull Force surrender negotiations. All weapons were destroyed, ammunition was buried, and grenades were made useless. Defeat was made more bitter by the battalion being photographed by Japanese cinematographers as it reached the enemy.

Kapitz and his staff at Lateri Battery had been taken prisoner in the early hours of 1st February by the Japanese unit which had captured the resting troops in the Paso position late on 31st January. There are indications that upon the surrender of the forces in the Dutch sector, there came into possession of the Japanese details of the positions occupied by the Australians and Bouman’s company; of the strength of the island’s forces; the situation of land and sea minefields; and other facts important to the enemy in completing their occupation of the island. Such information could for instance have facilitated the shelling of the Benteng Battery, the entry of Japanese warships into the Bay of Ambon, and the assault on the Australian positions from land, sea, and air.

Telephonic communication with Laha had ceased once the Australians on the Laitimor Peninsula lost touch with Dutch headquarters, connected to Laha by cable. Scott, however, sent a wireless message to Newbury, who informed him that news of the strength of the Japanese, and of their landings, had been transmitted to Australia. The RAAF wireless personnel had then left. The mortar and machine-gun positions particularly at Laha had been intensively bombed from the air. The Australians replied with small arms fire. They also manned the anti-aircraft guns when the local crews went to cover during air attacks.

The first land attack on the Laha position came late in the afternoon of 31st January, apparently by an advanced party of the force which had landed at Hitu-lama. The Japanese encountered a platoon of Captain Perry’s company north-east of the airfield, but though the platoon was heavily outnumbered, the party was repulsed. Mortar and machine-gun fire was exchanged next day, and it was evident that the Japanese were being heavily reinforced (probably as a result of the fall of Paso). A concentrated attack on the position, by troops, dive bombers, fighter planes, and artillery, commenced on 2nd February.

Page 436

Lieutenant McBride,40 in charge of a platoon at a beach position, received a message from Major Newbury during the night of 1st–2nd February that some Japanese appeared to have filtered through a platoon on the north side of the airfield and that he was to take his platoon to the spot.

About 0100 hours (Monday, 2nd February) heavy machine-gun and mortar fire was directed at our positions (wrote McBride soon afterwards) and small parties of the enemy infiltrated between the platoons holding that area. My platoon proceeded to deal with this enemy detachment and there was hand-to-hand fighting. The enemy were located because of their habit of talking and calling out in a high tone to each other. ... The fighting took place in an area covered by tall grass and the numbers of the enemy force could not be correctly arrived at. The enemy failed to make use of the natural cover afforded them and seemed to be poorly trained in night fighting. In individual combat the enemy troops were no match for our men and did not display any fortitude when wounded.

McBride almost trod on a Japanese, and was shot through both arms. He was assisted by his batman, Private Hawkins,41 to the field dressing station in the village of Laha.

Support was moved up also from Captain Watchorn’s company, stationed south of the airfield. At dawn on the 2nd a concentrated attack was made by the Japanese, and about 10 a.m. resistance ceased.

Next day, at the advanced dressing station in the jungle behind the airfield, McBride found that the Japanese had occupied the airfield. Despite his weak condition, he began to organise an escape party. Captain White,42 of the 2/12th Field Ambulance, and all his men, decided to stay with the wounded. Full details, from an Australian point of view, of the fighting at Laha, have not become available, for reasons given below. Tribute was paid by Private Wegner,43 brought from Laha by the Japanese, to the inspiration and gallantry of Newbury’s leadership.

In the defence of Ambon, the main part of Gull Force lost 15 killed. In addition 309 officers and men who were at Laha were either killed in action or killed by the Japanese in mass executions which evidently took place on 6th February, and between the 15th and 20th. Japanese witnesses said after the war that the executions took place as a reprisal for the loss of life caused to the Japanese when a mine-sweeper (as mentioned above) struck a Dutch mine in Ambon Bay on 1st February.44

It is now known from Japanese sources that their force consisted in the main of the 38th Infantry Division Headquarters under Major-General Takeo Ito, and the

Page 437

228th Infantry Regiment.45 (It was the 38th Division which had taken Hong Kong.) The force had spent nine days in training at Davao, in the Philippines, where the troops were informed of their destination. Ito decided that the main Allied force was round Ambon and that he would land on the south-eastern part of the peninsula where the defences would probably be weak.

The main part of the convoy appeared south of Ambon Island as a ruse; went northward; and again turned, to land at Hutumori. Other vessels carried the 1st Kure Naval Landing Force, about 820 strong, which had been added to Ito’s force, and an army unit of about company strength, to the north coast for the landing at Hitu-lama. There the approach was aided by heavy clouds which Genichi Yamamoto, of the Navy Press Corps, enthusiastically acclaimed as “aid from Heaven”.46

From Hitu-lama, the Japanese reached Binnen Bay by midday on 31st January, and by nightfall an advanced party was at Laha. Next day a party reconnoitred the hills at the back of the position, and on 2nd February an attack was made in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses.

Japanese readers were given by Yamamoto a highly dramatic account of the struggle. Although apparently he did not himself witness the fighting, he reported that, from accounts given by the commander and his men, the Naval Landing Force’s “human bullet battle” was “a record of blasting through forbidding mountains, thickly woven jungles, and impassable roads, or literally going over the bodies of dead comrades, and hacking with blood and death in the midst of the enemy .. . a battle during which took place such heroism as to make the Gods weep”.

The attack on Laha was “like fighting against the blast of a furnace”, but on the second day of the attack in coordination with the terrific attack by land, the Japanese air force was bombing the enemy fortifications, while warships were pounding the battery and bombarding the trench mortar positions of the enemy behind the Laha aerodrome from the sea. For all their numerical superiority, the defending forces began to betray signs of weakened resistance towards sundown, under the relentless pressures of the Japanese from land, sea and air. Yamamoto admitted, however, that “the desperate resistance of the Australians after the break-through of the Japanese death band was not to be despised”.47

A Japanese prisoner of war later testified that when the surrender came, there remained of the defending force at Laha about 150 Australians, two or three Dutchmen, and a few natives.

The main enemy force, with horses and bicycles, landed unopposed at Hutumori, according to Japanese accounts. Thrusting along narrow tracks, one part of it went northward to Paso, and the other across the Laitimor Peninsula to the town. Resistance to the latter force was quickly overcome until the Australian positions south and south-west of the town were encountered. There frontal attacks became necessary, and it was not until artillery had been moved up, and all weapons trained on the positions, that the Japanese won the island.

The battle of Ambon Island disclosed in miniature many of the deficiencies of Allied defence against the Japanese onslaught generally. Without support at sea or in the air, the forces on the island had been overcome by an enemy whose strength and ability had been grossly under-estimated by many concerned. The speedy defeat of the Dutch forces was due in part it seems, here as elsewhere, to failure of communications.

Page 438

The resistance by the Australians, while it hinged largely upon the Paso position being held, or at any rate on continuation of the fight by the Dutch forces, fell short of what might have been done had there been a greater sense of urgency in the preparation of Gull Force for its task, and had it not experienced the handicaps mentioned in this chapter. Nevertheless, in the absence of aid from elsewhere, it was inevitable that a force such as the Japanese brought to bear against Ambon Island should succeed in its task, with little more delay than actually occurred. There remains the possibility that, had the necessary provision been made, the Japanese might have been hampered, after their occupation of the island, by guerrilla warfare. It is doubtful, however, if this could have been maintained for long, and on any significant scale, on an island so small, and so far removed from Allied aid as Ambon was destined to be.

Because of the change of commanders in mid-January, and Scott’s scant knowledge of the ground and the personnel of Gull Force, he had to rely upon Macrae to a far greater extent than would have been necessary under normal circumstances. Despite sharp divergencies of outlook and opinion which existed between the two men, Scott recorded of Macrae: “His loyalty to me from start to finish has been one of the finest things which I have met with in a long life. ... He is an officer of undoubted courage. He is imbued with many traits of personal character which might be regarded as ideal in any officer.”

Of Gull Force, despite his having been severely critical of it, Scott reported that it “did in fact hold up a complete Japanese division with its transports and adequate naval and air support for at least two weeks, and inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy. ... It can be stated that had Gull Force been withdrawn from Ambon before the Japanese attack, the Japanese division ... could have proceeded straight to Darwin. ... I am unable to say whether this force would have been destroyed on arrival at Darwin during January-February 1942, but there can be said to be at least considerable doubt on this point.”

Certainly, had the island not been garrisoned, or had the Japanese known how small the force was which held it, they could have attacked on a smaller scale and used the surplus for other operations. Ambon and Timor, however, were convenient stepping-stones in the Japanese southward movement, and it would have been risky to leave either as a possible base for attack on their sea communications. Thus when resistance on Ambon had been overcome, the invaders prepared for a further advance, not to Darwin but to Timor.

As has been mentioned, Lieutenant McBride on 3rd February began to organise the escape of the men who like himself were lying wounded or sick at the advanced dressing station at Laha. He collected about 20 patients who were able to walk and led them northward. In an Ambonese village on the northern side of the island he learnt that Wing Commander

Page 439

Scott48 and 10 men of the RAAF had attempted to escape by boat, but had been captured by a Japanese naval launch. After nine days McBride, with eight others, rowed a prahu to Ceram, where with the assistance of the Dutch District Officer and the natives he and four others reached Amahai. There he joined Lieutenant Snell of the Dutch Army, a Dutch medical officer and four Dutch soldiers. The combined party went on to Dobo in the Aru Islands, where they picked up 72 Dutch native troops and, now in two motor-boats, went on to Merauke in Dutch New Guinea, joining on the way a prahu containing a Dutchman, with his wife and child and 16 men of the AIF From Merauke the combined party went on to Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a four-day voyage.

Another party of escapers was led by Lieutenant Chapman. With the 20 men of Macrae’s patrol he had gone from Latuhalat to Seri Bay, obtained a prahu and set sail. They went to Nusalaut Island, then Saparua Island and Amahai, being helped by natives on the way. Thence they made their way towards Geser Island, off the south-east tip of Ceram. At the village of Tehoru natives told them that 50 Japanese were ahead of them in a motor launch. Thereupon ten of the men decided “to take their chance in the bush” rather than continue the voyage. The remainder continued to Geser and thence reached Tual in the Kai Islands on 26th February, where

Page 440

the ten who had set out to walk along Ceram rejoined them. From Tual Chapman sent a signal through normal channels to Bandung:–

1 officer 20 O.Rs escaped Ambon. Request instructions and transport.

On the 28th February Bandung replied that he should proceed to Dobo in the Am Islands, where after eight days a ship would arrive. At Dobo Chapman’s party found a Dutch infantry company. No ship arrived, but the Australians went on to Merauke in luggers, and were taken thence in a naval vessel which landed them at Thursday Island on 12th April. This party finally included Chapman, 10 Australians, 16 Dutch troops and 2 Dutch women and 4 children.

A third group was led by Lieutenant Jinkins, who escaped after six weeks in prison camp, accompanied by Lieutenants Jack49 and Rudder50 and four other ranks. Both the Gull Force commander, Scott, and his second-in-command, Macrae, might have joined this escape party had they wished. However, when the independent opinions were sought of two of Scott’s officers both declared Scott and Macrae should remain: Scott because as Commanding Officer he “was responsible to the Australian Government for the prisoners of war and it was therefore his duty to remain” and Macrae because “the Commanding Officer was a stranger to the battalion ... did not know any of the officers or men, their qualities or their weaknesses”, and Macrae’s departure would deprive him “of his only counsellor”.51 Scott and Macrae abided by this decision. The party of escapers sailed from island to island, reaching Australia after a voyage of six weeks.

Private Johnson52 organised the escape to Australia of another party of six which eventually reached Dobo and there joined a group of three who had originally been with McBride, and another group including Private Digney,53 another Australian, and two American airmen who had been shot down some time before. They eventually reached Thursday Island.

While the Ambon operation was in progress the American aircraft carrier force made its first foray into the western Pacific. This force – initially Saratoga, Lexington, Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise – had not been at Pearl Harbour when it was attacked, but the shock of that calamity had been so severe that from 8th December until mid-January the carriers had not ventured westward. On the last day of 1941 new American naval commanders took charge both at Washington and Pearl Harbour – Admiral Ernest J. King as Chief of Naval Operations at Washington and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. “Morale

Page 441

at Pearl Harbour, which had reached an all-time low with the recall of the Wake relief expedition, now rose several hundred per cent,” wrote the historian of the United States Navy.54 “He [Nimitz] restored confidence to the defeated Fleet.” King instructed Nimitz that he must hold the line of communications through Samoa and Fiji to Australia and New Zealand. As mentioned, this policy had been accepted by President Roosevelt since late December, the necessity for it having been urged upon General Marshall as early as 14th December by Brigadier-General Eisenhower, then newly appointed to his planning staff. Eisenhower said to Marshall: “Our base must be Australia, and we must start at once to expand it and to secure our communications to it. In this last we dare not fail.”55 Marshall had promptly adopted the idea. (None of this was known to Australians at the time and the legend developed that American forces were sent to Australia solely to help Australia and in response to Australian appeals.) The arrival at Brisbane of the “Pensacola Convoy”, diverted after the attack on Pearl Harbour from its original destination in the Philippines, had led to the establishment of an American base in Australia.

On 6th January an important reinforcement for the America-Australia route sailed from San Diego in California. It was a force of marines for American Samoa, and was escorted by two carriers, Yorktown and Enterprise, and attendant naval vessels. The marines were disembarked at Samoa on the 23rd January, the day on which Japanese troops supported by the Japanese Carrier Fleet landed at Rabaul, 2,500 miles to the west.

The American leaders feared that the enemy, having taken Rabaul, might next thrust farther east, from the Marshall Islands against Samoa, capture of which would place them firmly astride the American reinforcement route. To counter this Yorktown and Enterprise were ordered on 25th January with 5 cruisers and 10 destroyers to make a foray north from Samoa and bomb Japanese bases in the Marshalls. Between them these ships on 1st February bombed or bombarded Kwajalein, Wotje, Jaluit and other atolls. Little damage was done, but the carrier crews gained experience and confidence. Thus the week of the Japanese success at Ambon was the week also of the tentative beginnings of an American naval offensive in the Pacific.