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The story of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles

| Australian War Memorial

NGVR     Members of B Company  New Guinea Volunteer Rifles  display a Japanese flag they captured at Mubo on 21 July 1942 (Australian War Memorial)
Members of B Company New Guinea Volunteer Rifles display a Japanese flag they captured at Mubo on 21 July 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

CANBERRA – Anyone glancing at the Nominal Roll of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) would be excused for thinking that Australia had maintained a Foreign Legion at its northern outposts in January 1942.

Such names as Lars Waldamar Bergstrand, Carlo Lugarno Cavalieri, Bruno Chou Lai, Alistair Stuart Fraser-Fraser, Francisco Trojaolo and Hubert Behrendorff appear and are an indication of the cosmopolitan nature of the volunteer movement.

When Army Headquarters, on 4 September 1939, issued the necessary orders for the raising of this unit, men from Europe, British Isles, New Zealand, Australia and Asia, men who had their homes and livelihood in the Territory of New Guinea and were aware of the menace of Japan, hastened to join. Chan Kim Thai was a Rifleman; Shui Hong, a Lieutenant.

Prior to the beginning of the war, Australia had scrupulously observed its undertakings to the League of Nations and had refrained from making any defence preparations in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the mandate, the Returned Soldier's League Sub-Branches took a vigorous lead in demanding that at least some effort should be made to arm and train those residents who wished to be better prepared to defend themselves and their homes.

Colonel J Walstab, the Police Superintendent at Rabaul, visited Melbourne in August 1939, and discussed the matter fully with Army Headquarters.

Largely because of his efforts, it was decided to form a militia-type battalion in New Guinea.

The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) had the distinction of being the only Australian  army militia unit raised, mobilised, fought and disbanded overseas in  the Mandated Territory of New Guinea between 1939 and 1943.

The initial strength of the battalion was limited to 20 officers and 400 other ranks, but this was increased in June 1940 to 23 officers and 482 other ranks.

The enthusiasm in the early days stemmed mainly from returned soldiers of the 1914-18 War, but by mid-1941 the unit had lost many of its younger members who had joined the AIF and other services. 

While the remoteness of many areas was a disadvantage, a growing realisation of the danger of war in the Pacific led to a revival of interest late 1941.

The headquarters of the NGVR was  originally at Rabaul and sub-units were located at Wau, Salamaua, Lae  and Madang.

Fit men between the ages of 18 and 50 were accepted.  Enlistment was for a two-year period and there was no pay except for an  allowance of £1 a year.

The uniform consisted of khaki shirts and trousers, made from material sent from Australia.

The Army supplied  felt hats, bandoliers, leather belts, boots and puttees. Brass NGVR shoulder badges were worn.

Arms consisted of rifles and some Vickers and  Lewis machine guns.

In August 1941, after the arrival of  Lark Force in Rabaul, NGVR, under the command of Major WM Edwards,  moved its headquarters to Bulolo on the mainland.

After Japan attacked,  the Battalion was placed on full-time duty and mobilised on the 21 January1942.

When the Japanese invaded  Rabaul in  the early hours of the 22 January, NGVR was under the command of the commanding officer of 2/22nd Battalion.

NGVR was positioned on the northern flank of the Lark Forces defence line around the harbour and  manned medium machine  guns and mortars.

NGVR fought until resistance was of no avail, either sharing the fate of other prisoners-of-war or withdrawing south across New Britain to the Open Bay and Wide Bay areas for eventual evacuation.

Over 36 NGVR personnel of the 1,053 plus  Australian prisoners of war and civilian miners from Rabaul and nearby New Guinea Islands died when the Japanese naval prison ship Montevideo Maru was sunk in the South China Sea on 1 July 1942 by an American submarine; the worst single Australian marine tragedy in World War II.

Together, with about 150 other Australian soldiers, a number of NGVR soldiers were massacred at Tol Plantation on Wide Bay by the Japanese.

On the mainland, NGVR formed  independent detachments at Wau, Salamaua, Bulolo and Lae.

On 21 January, when 60 Japanese aircraft struck simultaneously at Lae, Salamaua and Bulolo, the second-in-command of NGVR, Major EW Jenyns, went to the Administrator in Lae, who then declared a state of emergency and handed over to Jenyns.

Assuming a Japanese landing at Lae was imminent and with NGVR on full time duty, all civilians departed on 24  January. This left six RAAF signallers and six NGVR soldiers in Lae. 

Meanwhile, other NGVR groups defended  strategic points in the area, with  their headquarters at Mubo.  NGVR was at about company strength in the  Lae area by this time.

When the Japanese invaded Lae on 8  March 1942, NGVR moved westward towards Nadzab. After the Japanese landed at Salamaua on the same day, NGVR withdrew across the Francisco  River and  destroyed  the bridge.

A section was positioned at the river and the other troops moved south to Mubo.

Although the Japanese appeared to be in  no hurry to move inland, a party of 60 went to Komiatum, half way to  Mubo, on 18 March and destroyed the NGVR stores dump.

While the Japanese kept to the Lae town  area, NGVR faced new problems.

As the only administrative  representative of law and order, it assumed responsibility for several  thousand indentured labourers recruited from many outlying districts,  but now without support and unable to return to their homes.

The NGVR  established depots and fed them, and they became the first of the army  of carriers and labourers who proved so vital in their support to the  Allies during the fighting that followed.

Colonel Edwards sent six NGVR soldiers  to find out what the Japanese were doing in Salamaua The Japanese knew  they were there but failed to find them.

As the local people were in  trouble with the Japanese for assisting the Australians, NGVR withdrew  to avoid further trouble for them.

Similar NGVR posts were established  along the Markham Valley and Heath’s Plantation closer to Lae to watch  the Japanese. NGVR filled a large gap to late May 1942 by keeping in touch with and containing the enemy.

The first reinforcements to reach NGVR at Wau were reinforcements originally designed for the 2/1st Independent Companyy which was decimated in the Japanese attacks on Manus Island, Rabaul and Kavieng.  They were diverted to Wau and walked in over the Bulldog Track.

The 2/5th Independent Company, Australian Imperial Force, with supporting attachments, flew into Wau from Port Moresby on 23 May to reinforce NGVR.

These units formed Kanga Force, whose role was to start a limited offensive to harass and destroy enemy personnel and equipment in the area.

The Officer Commanding Kanga Force considered there were 2,000 Japanese in  Lae and 250 in Salamaua. 

Kanga Force had 700 men, of whom only 450 were fit for operations – a small number to meet the many possible Japanese  threats.

To forestall these, the OC ordered raids on Salamaua and  Heath’s Plantation west of Lae. The Salamaua raid was planned quickly as  a result of previous scouting work.

Early in the morning of 29 June 1942, 71  members of NGVR and 2/5th Independent Company killed at least 100  Japanese at a cost of three men slightly wounded.

This very successful  raid made the Japanese draw on their garrison at Lae to reinforce their  perimeter at Salamaua.

Although the 58 man strong raid on Heath’s Plantation was successful, it lacked surprise and the leader was killed and two other men wounded.

The NGVR remained in good spirits but the deprivations of continuous operations in hostile terrain without adequate supply and medication took their toll, with many falling sick with fever and
other tropical diseases.

The number of fit men steadily dwindled. As food was not getting through, the soldiers became increasingly dependent on the local food supply.

Japanese air raids, their intimidation tactics over the local people, and the sheer physical difficulty of getting rations forward to feed carriers had a cumulative effect and threatened to stop Kanga Force activity.

Later, when the focus shifted to the  Milne Bay and Kokoda Track battles, NGVR continued to man its posts  overlooking the Japanese.

1942 was NGVR’s year. By early 1943 too few  were left to be effective. Because of their knowledge of the country and  its problems, the remaining NGVR soldiers were attached to the  Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), and NGVR lost its identity.

The NGVR soldiers came from many walks of life.  While some were too old to join the AIF, medically unfit or employed in restricted occupations, they fought well.

They also  initiated the organising Papua New Guinean labour which was to become a  vital contributory feature to the success of the Allied campaign in the  New Guinea archipelago.

* Excerpted from an article by CF Coady of the Australian War Memorial in ‘Australian Territories’ magazine (1995-96)


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Henry Sims

NGVR war service led to the US Distinguished Unit Citation being awarded by the US Army for work done as being part of Brewer Force whilst in support of the Americans.

This is eligible to be worn by the ex-members of PNGVR, but only when parading as a unit on ANZAC and other memorial days.

Ian Downs OBE wrote a history of NGVR which records 36 NGVR officially listed and 44 NGVR listed as civilians all perishing on the Montevideo Maru when it was torpedoed in 1942.

Ian Downs' book is not in print but can be bought through second hand bookshops - KJ

'The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles: NGVR 1939-1943, a History' by Ian Downs (1915-2004)

Pacific Press (1999) Broadbeach Waters, Queensland, 359 pages, ISBN 187515003X

Includes illustrations, maps, index, bibliography, nominal roll

Lindsay F Bond

A win needed and welcomed was that of July 1942 by NGVR.

The Mubo battle recalled as victory was still a year away in July 1943.

Please adjust this comment if not correct.

Looks good to me. Wikipedia has full coverage of this long battle. Link here:

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