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The Japanese attack on Ambon, January–February 1942.

The Japanese landed on the island of Ambon on 30 January 1942. After just four days of bitter fighting the under- equipped and poorly prepared Australian and Dutch forces on the island surrendered.

The Australian battalion group of about 1100 men known as 'Gull Force' had arrived in Ambon on 17 December 1941 after a three-day trip from Darwin. The group comprised the 2/21st Battalion, which was part of the 23rd Brigade, 8th Australian Division, together with anti-tank, engineer, medical and other detachments. Their task was to join Netherlands East Indies troops - about 2500 men - to help defend the Bay of Ambon and two airfields at Laha and Liang. The Dutch commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J R L Kapitz, was senior to the Australian commander, Lieutenant- Colonel L N Roach, and took control of both forces, dispersing them into two groups. One group was sent to defend the airfield at Laha on the west side of Ambon Bay and the others were deployed to the east of the bay, south of the town of Ambon. Both the Australian and the Dutch forces were inadequately prepared and under-equipped. Lieutenant-Colonel Roach, aware of the futility of their task, made repeated requests for reinforcements of both men and equipment from Australia, even suggesting that Gull Force should be evacuated from the island if it could not be reinforced. Instead, he was recalled to Australia and Lieutenant-Colonel John Scott, a 53-year-old Army Headquarters staff officer from Melbourne, replaced Roach as commanding officer of Gull Force in the middle of January.

The first Japanese air attack on Ambon was on 6 January and by 24 January the Japanese were less than 1000 kilometres from the island. The last of the Allied aircraft were withdrawn on 30 January.

The Japanese landed three battalions on Ambon during the night of 30-31 January. The Australians lost contact with the Dutch who capitulated the next day on 1 February. Scott, the Australian commander, surrendered two days later on 3 February. Some small groups of men escaped and made their way back to Australia but almost 800 surviving Australians became prisoners of war. The Australians together with about 300 Dutch prisoners of war were put back into their barracks at Tan Tui, north of Ambon town.

On 25 October 1942, about 500 of the Australian and Dutch prisoners were sent to Hainan, an island in the South China Sea off the coast of mainland China. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, they left Ambon in the Taiko Maru and arrived in the Bay of Sama on Hainan Island on 4 November. The next day they sailed up the coast to a camp at Bakli Bay.

The Japanese government had recognised Hainan Island's potential and planned to use the POWs to build roads and viaducts in order to develop agriculture and industry on the island. The prisoners were forced to do hard manual labour under difficult and brutal conditions with a completely inadequate diet. By 1945 the survivors were all starving. Worse still, Scott was an unpopular senior officer who was unable to command the respect of his troops. His unpopularity increased when he organised Japanese rather than Australian discipline for men who violated Australian army regulations.

Early in 1944, 40 of the Australians were sent to work at the Japanese garrison at Hoban, north of Bakli Bay on Hainan. While out on a work party one morning, they were fired on by Chinese guerrillas, some of several thousand nationalist and communist guerillas still operating against the Japanese on the island. Nine Australian POWs were killed, three were wounded and ten others were captured by the guerillas but were never recovered.

At the end of August 1945, Americans liberated the POWs from Hainan. On Ambon the surviving Australian POWs waited another four weeks to be rescued by the Royal Australian Navy corvettes, HMAS Cootamundra, Glenelg, Latrobe and Junee. The very high (over 75%) death rate on Ambon had been exacerbated when an American bomber dropped six bombs on the Japanese bomb dump right next to the Tan Tui POW camp. The dump ignited and exploded, killing six Australian officers, including the doctor, four other ranks and 27 Dutch women and children. A number of Dutch and Australian casualties died later.

After the Japanese surrender it was discovered that about 300 servicemen who had surrendered at Laha airfield had been killed in four separate massacres between 6 and 20 February 1942. Not one had survived. The prisoners on Ambon and Hainan were subjected to some of the most brutal treatment experienced by POWs anywhere during World War II. Over three-quarters of the Australian prisoners there died in captivity.


Tan Tui Barracks: on the shores of Ambon Bay, where the Australians were billeted with the Dutch and also where the Japanese kept them as POWs.

Private VX61203
 Fred Hutchins

2/21st Battalion - C Company.
 Served on Ambon Island and was captured by the Japanese at Amuhusha, he became a prisoner of war with his brother David after huge Japanese armies invaded the Island in February 1942. Fred survived 3.5yrs as a P.O.W before he was killed. Fred was bashed with an iron fence picket by a Japanese prison guard because he was too weak to join a working party. Fred died on the 6th of July 1945. Aged 24yrs, he is buried on Ambon.

War Cemetery.
          2/21st Battalion
David, Eric & Fred: taken at Woorinen in August 1941.  Eric who was 17yrs old, and his younger brother Ray, who was 16, had driven their parents mad to let them enlist with their older brothers. Their parents eventually gave in, and the four of them went to enlist on the 6th of August 1941.  Ray was rejected by the Army because of his height - it most likely saved his life. Eric was dead within six months.  David & Fred survived 3.5 years before they both died in July 1945 -  only a few weeks before the Japanese surrender.              
  Highly recommended reading

Extract from Island of Mist: writen by p.o.w survivor, Courtney Harrison

Page 133: Also during the black and tragic month of July 1945, a party of of prisoners were building a new kitchen, some distance from the road at Lateri. Pte F.Hutchins, although very weak and suffering from several bouts of maleria, was ordered to join a working party. Ike Asor began to punish him because of his inability to do much work. He received several beatings, the last beeing with a "three star" iron fence picket. He was knocked to the ground where he was given further punishment. Ike Asor left him unconscious on the ground from where one of his mates later carried him to the truck. He remaind unconcious, and died in the prison camp the following morning. Savage beating had become almost a daily happening: the prisoners expected them at any time, and could do nothing to prevent them.

Postscipt from Island of Mist

In conclusion, it is without a doubt that from the days of its formation and throughout its entire existence, the 2/21st Battalion (known as Gull Force) endured a tremendous amount of frustration and deprivations far beyond contemplation. All throughout their training period of nearly 18 months in Australia, they had to overcome such problems as shortages of equipment urgently required for training purposes, but somehow managed to deal with the situations that confronted them. It was a well kept secret that future plans for their ultimate destination had been established because of a long standing agreement by Australia with the Netherlands Government should Japan enter the war, and when this did eventuate, Gull Force moved to Ambon, a small island north west of Darwin and a comparable distance as from Melbourne to Sydney. Together with a regiment of poorly trained native troops led by the Dutch officers, they were given the impossible task of defending it against a Division of experienced well trained enemy with modern arms and equipment, aided by Naval ships and carrier born aircraft which made the result never in doubt. As to the correctness or otherwise of the conception of Australian troops being sacrificed in such circumstances, I refrain from comment with the understanding that any war means sacrifice. Whilst the barbaric and inhuman treatment of the men of Gull Force by the Japanese has been adequately described in previous pages, the full effect and suffering from it can only be known by those who received it. Only the men who were able to survive it know the tremendous spirit of endeavour required to overcome the physical and mental torture of mind and body that resulted from it. The Japanese contrived at all times to eliminate as many as possible of their prisoners over a period of 3 years and 9 months through starvation, slavery, bashings, and disease by denial of medical supplies, but failed to break the spirit and courage of these men to the extent they desired. The men of Gull Force make no claim to fame in battle, as circumstances deprived them of this. However, some acts of bravery will remain unknown. As a final message it is my greatest desire to inform all relatives and friends and all Australians that, on each and every occasion, when adverse or drastic circumstances provoked it, every Australian prisoner retained his self respect and upheld the honour of his country in the face of an enemy they so fiercely despised. Their behaviour at all times, under extremely adverse and intolerable conditions and situations, must be considered a remarkable achievement. 

Courtney T. Harrison

(AWM 089460)


(AWM 118253)

    Tan Tui cemetary

(AWM 118253)

Mortar Company
David, Eric, Fred and their cousin Thomas were all part of Gull Force
C Company - No3 Mortar platoon.

                                   January 2nd 1942
                                   VX61203 Pvt Fred Hutchins
                                   2/21st Battalion C Coy
     A.I.F Australia


                                    Dear Mike,

                                    Just a few lines to let you know that we are all well just at present and hoping that you are the same over there.
                                    Well Mike no doubt you’ll think I am long winded in addressing your letter, but better late than not at all. Dave received your letter on the 1st of January and was very pleased to hear from you. Eric, Dave and myself had a letter from Mrs Alf Trazise with a canteen order, and they are sending us up a parcel each. She said they were hoping to see us home for Christmas but we never got home at all. What do you think about us being sent abroad without final leave – I thought we would get a chance to see Mum and all at home, but there’s no chance now. I didn’t think that we would ever leave Darwin. I suppose Mum and the rest would be annoyed about not seeing us before leaving. Well Mike, you were asking if we see much of Harry Lawrence, well we see him nearly every day – it’s a wonder he hasn’t wrote to you before, as I gave him your address just after we got to Darwin. He was asking after you this morning. Well Mike it’s a wonderful place where we are now, but it is hellishly hot. There is every kind of fruit you can think of, so we ought to be sick of fruit for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t look as if Claude will get home now for the fruit carting after all. Dave had a letter from Anne the other day, and she was saying that Claude was doing his day’s training and pick and shovel work at night, so I guess Claude would be crook on that. Well Mike its pretty tough when you cant mention where we are, but I suppose you may have a fair idea where we are. Well brother there isn’t much news to tell you now, so I think I will have to say cheerio for the time.

                                    Hoping to hear from you soon. I remain your brother Fred

Also recommended reading.

Joan Beaumont - Gull Force
 Survival and Leadership in
Captivity 1941 - 1945.
2/21st Battalion Unit Diaries
A letter from Fred to his brother Malcolm
Harry Lawrence,
who is mentioned in this letter, is believed to have died from illness on  Ambon on the 7th of August 1945. Eight days before the Japanese surrendered.