The Origin of the Independent Companies and Training at Tidal River

Much credit for formation of the Independent Companies must go to the British Government, when Military Mission 104, led by Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Mawhood arrived in Melbourne, Australia in November 1940, with the idea of raising and training British style ‘special’ or ‘commando’ units, which had proved successful in operating against German-occupied Europe.

The Australian Army decided to raise four ‘independent’ companies and train them at the innocuously named No. 7 Infantry Training Centre at Wilson’s Promontory, a national park since 1898. It was an isolated area of high, rugged and heavily timbered mountains, precipitous valleys, swiftly running streams, and swamps, sand dunes, thick scrub, bays and cliffs.

Given this geography, The Prom was ‘ideally suited for training troops who might fight anywhere from the Libyan deserts to the jungles of New Guinea, the only drawback being that in winter … the climate was often more polar than tropical’, as Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman, instructor in fieldcraft, wrote later.

Spencer Chapman was joined by Captain ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, explosives; Sergeant Frank Misselbrook, signals; and Sergeant Peter Stafford, weapons, to train the first Australian Independent Companies.

This training led to the formation of eight Independent Companies – later to be redesignated as Commandos. They subsequently became renowned for their achievements during the war in Timor, Ambon, New Guinea, Bougainville and the Borneo islands. Tragically, however, 300 were beheaded at Ambon and 140 were captured and died when the Japanese prison ship Montevideo Maru was torpedoed and sunk off Luzon.

Throughout the years of the war, many surviving soldiers of the Independent Companies were seconded to Coastwatcher parties thus augmenting these parties with their jungle experience.

The following is my public address on the occasion of the Tidal River Memorial Service, Wilsons Promontory, 15 November 2015.

Address by ex-Sergeant Jim Burrowes, ‘M’ Special Unit

Speaking at Tidal River commemoration 15 November 2015.

Speaking at Tidal River commemoration 15 November 2015.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, children and members of the Commando Association

As guest speaker on this memorable occasion, I would like us to pay homage to the original commandos who trained here at Tidal River on the ‘Prom’ 74 years ago.

Before doing so, I wish to record the sincere appreciation of the few of us ‘who are left grow old’ from the original Commando Association, for the care and attention of the second Commando Association generation, and particularly for the annual commemorations at the Tidal River pilgrimage.

I was too young to train here at the Prom, being only 16 when the war started, and having to wait for two years before joining the A.I.F. Hence I missed the gruelling exercises the troops were put through down here, but I would now like to dedicate this commemoration to them.

As prologue: in the late 1940s, based on the British Commandos, the powers-that-be decided to establish eight independent companies, later to become the respective commando companies. Their role was to infiltrate and operate in enemy-held territory: to report on and attack the enemy.

Thus the 1st, 2nd and 3rd independent companies were initially formed in early 1941, and they lived and trained at the No. 7. Infantry Centre under Captain ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, where our memorial now stands, and also on the Darby river close by. With no roads in those days, access was difficult in the rugged bush, and the troops were told to ‘dump your kit bags here’ and ‘there’s your tents to pitch’.

Exercises were taken in full battle dress in the very rugged conditions, marching all day without food and water. Night excursions to climb Mount Oberon without warning and blankets were ordered at random.

Lieutenant Mike Sheehan wrote that after a long hard exercise along the length of the prom, there was a truck waiting a few miles short of the camp, and the troops were asked ‘if any fellow is a bit knocked up, hop on the truck and we’ll take you back to camp’. Any takers were foolish as on arrival at the camp they were told to pack their kit-bags and were banished back to where they came from. Any troops who failed to make it to the top of Oberon following surprise night-time orders to do so also suffered the same fate.

When I researched what those troops went through, I think I would have been on that truck!

The gruelling exercises were not without drama.

On rare occasions, a select few were allowed to go by truck into Fish Creek to the pub or pictures. On returning from one such occasion, Andy Pirie of the 2nd reported that some NCOs decided to organise a surprise to scare them, by blowing up the convoy with an explosive charge by the side of the road. Unfortunately a trainee sergeant lit the fuse too early and it blew up the group, killing a sergeant and maiming two others!

The story continues with the independent companies completing their training in mid-1941, but in the meantime, some ten months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, the government had formed the ‘Malay Barrier’ against any Japanese military threat, by deploying a series of ‘bird’ forces around the islands north of Australia. These contingents were named ‘Sparrow Force’ at Timor, ‘Gull Force’ at Ambon and ‘Lark Force’ in New Britain. It was to these contingents that the independent companies, with other battalions, were then transported in troop ships.

Sadly, I now come to an epilogue of disaster.

The ‘Malay Barrier’ proved to be totally futile, as Japanese invasions took place with overwhelming odds to defeat and capture the token forces. The Japanese landed at Rabaul with 5,500 troops and vastly superior firepower, a superiority of over 3 to 1 over the 1,500 poorly-armed Australian contingent, and literally walked into Rabaul with very few casualties.

They also landed 3,000 troops at Kavieng on New Ireland, at more than 20 to 1 odds against the 1st independent company of 140 soldiers which had disembarked there in mid-1941. Following some token resistance, the independent company was forced to retreat to avoid capture, with a small force remaining at the airfield to blow up supply dumps and facilities.

They were able to obtain a disabled boat, the Induna Star, which they repaired and in which they set off for Port Moresby. Unfortunately a lone Japanese aircraft spotted them and strafed them with much damage. The plane then contacted a destroyer which captured them and redirected them to Rabaul, where they joined the other POWs, enduring slave conditions unloading ships and digging tunnels in those early months of captivity.

In the meantime, to the abject shame of the Australian government, it was communicated by Sir Earl Page that the Lark Force at Rabaul would be ‘hostages to fortune’ [see Anne McCosker ‘What about Rabaul?’] with no relief, reinforcements or rescue, ordering the Force to fight to the end!

Following this decree, the commanding officer Colonel Scanlon issued the infamous order ‘Every man for himself’. Thus the troops were abandoned by their officers.

Four hundred men of Lark Force escaped into the jungle but with no caches of food supplies prearranged, they suffered horrendous difficulties, eventually escaping in two boats. 160 were massacred at Tol plantation after surrendering, and 853 – including the remaining 132 commandos from Tidal River – were then part of the 1,053 men, including 200 civilians from Rabaul, who were transported in the Montevideo Maru prison ship, sunk by an American submarine off the coast of Luzon on 1 July 1942. It was the largest Australian maritime disaster of the war, much larger than the HMAS Sydney which claimed 645 sailors. Rabaul was the largest military disaster.

One doesn’t want to think about the last desperate minutes the prisoners went through before drowning in the hold of the Montevideo Maru, having suffered no food, no water nor latrines for the previous week, and knowing they were about to die. However, with my brother Bob of the 34th Fortress Engineers also on board, I take some solace from the fact that they didn’t have to suffer three and a half years of misery and torture in the coal mines of Hainan.

A few of the 1st were lucky: they had been transferred south to Caledonia and the Solomons, and were repatriated back to Australia where they joined the Coastwatchers. I got to know some of them, but with the 1st now wiped out, the company was disbanded.

The other independent companies from Tidal River served in Timor, New Guinea at Wau and Salamua, and in Borneo; all with distinction.

That completes my story of the Tidal River heroes, and if anyone has a relative or friend who went down on the Montevideo Maru, I will be happy to have a chat over a cup of coffee in the hospitality tent later, as I have a list of all the victims with me.

I have been pleased to be accompanied today by my lovely wife Beryl, who served three years in the Women’s Australian Air Force, and our two sons, Bob and Tom, who have carried on the names of their uncles who lost their lives at Rabaul. My twin brother Tom was shot down in a Beaufort bomber on his crew’s first mission over Rabaul in 1943. Coincidentally, Rabaul was also my destiny as I spent 10 months in the Baining Mountains overlooking the Japanese air-strip at Rabaul as a coastwatcher signaller in the Malcolm English party. Unlike my brothers, I came home.

The prime role of the coastwatchers in my party was to signal the details of Japanese bomber flights leaving Rabaul for Guadalcanal and Port Moresby, for the allies to be up in the air ready to repel them. Admiral Halsey, US Admiral of the Fleet, later declared that ‘The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.’

Thank you. I invite you to join me in a minute’s silence after the Ode:

They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them (the ghosts of Tidal River)