Monday, August 4, 2014

Survival, heroism, courage and mateship in Ambon, a place of nightmares.

Author: Roger Maynard

In February 1942 the Indonesian island of Ambon fell to the might of the advancing Japanese war machine. Key among the captured Allied forces was a unit of 1150 Australian soldiers known as Gull Force, who had been tasked to defend the island. In one of the most monstrous acts of cruelty of the Second World War, some 300 of the Australian troops held captive were massacred. But it was only the start of a catalogue of horror that would see the men incarcerated, starved and brutalised for the next three and a half years. Sacrificed in pursuit of a military strategy doomed to failure, they endured sickness, bloodshed and death. And such was the trauma that officers and men turned against each other as discipline and morale broke down. Yet their epic struggle also produced heroic acts of kindness and bravery. Just over 300 Australian soldiers lived to tell the tale of those grim days behind barbed wire. In AMBON they speak of not just the horrors, but of the courage, endurance and mateship that got them through. The story of AMBON is one of both the depravity and the triumph of the human spirit. It is also one that's not been widely told. Until now.

Other details ISBN: 9780733630637 Publication date: 29 Jul 2014 Page count: 352

About the author: Roger Maynard is a former BBC reporter and correspondent for The Times, The Independent and CNBC. A past president of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Australia, he has been a journalist for nearly five decades. He is the author of six books of true crime and military history. For more information visit


This book is a compelling account of a little-known wartime drama played out on the Indonesian island of Ambon involving a unit called Gull Force, a body of 1150 men drawn largely from the 2/21st Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. By the war’s end barely 300 of these men would be alive to tell the tale. The death rate on Ambon was a staggering 77 per cent of all those held in captivity.

While AMBON is essentially about one of the Second World War’s most brutal Prisoner of War camps, it is also a tale of mateship, heroism and the triumph of the human spirit.

Controversially AMBON reveals what happened when Allied officers and men turned against each other. Abandoned on Ambon for the rest of the war, the men of the 2/21st Battalion and sundry smaller units soon fell into a pitiful cycle of forced labour, boredom and plummeting morale. As a desperate and last-ditch effort to hold total chaos at bay, officers built ‘The Cage’, a prison within a prison to incarcerate hungry POWs accused of stealing food and other minor misdemeanours. This home-grown discipline meted out by Allied officers on their own men is one of the most shocking aspects of the Ambon POW experience.

The cage gouged a wound that even after 70 years refuses to heal and epitomises what happens when officers and men turn against each other.

AMBON also details one of the Second World War’s most monstrous acts of cruelty: the massacre of some 300 Australians and Dutch on the island in February 1942. Carried out as retribution for the sinking of a minesweeper in the Bay of Ambon during the opening days of the Japanese invasion, it was an orgy of bloodshed.

‘Death came swiftly for the Australians who were captured at the air base on the island of Ambon in the old Dutch East Indies during the Second World War. One by one their names were called, their hands tied and they were led out of the barracks to meet their fate. Warrant officer Shiego Hamanishi, who helped to oversee the first of the executions, described how ‘death was almost instantaneous. As soon as one execution was over, another followed’.
– from AMBON by Roger Maynard

Ambon is a tragedy which almost certainly could have been avoided had the allied military top brass been of sounder judgment. Instead they pursued a suicidal strategy which involved the sacrifice of Gull Force and its inevitable capitulation. Incredibly, Ambon was even bombed by American planes on a number of occasions when forces knew that Allied POWs were held there. Who was responsible for such a military debacle and could it have been avoided?

Amazingly some prisoners managed to escape the Ambon camp and island-hopped their way back to Australia. How they did it is a story in itself. Others were transferred to the Chinese island of Hainan where some escaped and joined Chinese guerrillas. There is speculation that a few may even have survived after the war, hiding themselves in the jungle. 
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