AWOL Fremantle – ‘Blackforce’ Java

The ‘Aquitania’ sailed into Gauge Roads from Sydney on 15th January 1942 carrying large numbers of Australian soldiers who would end their journey at Singapore (they did not know this until reaching Fremantle).  Included onboard was the 8th Division’s Western Australian raised 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion.  They had been training and working at Woodside, South Australia  and more recently Darwin – at that time the men were believing they were to be sent to the middle east.

They were very hopeful of leave to see their families and loved ones whom they had not seen for at least 6 months, before they went to fight who knows where? This thought was sadly quelled when receiving instructions “No Leave” would be provided to any soldier at Fremantle.  ‘Aquitania’ would only stay overnight to load further provisions and reinforcements for 2/4th.

Of course when the first pontoon neared the ‘Aquitania’ with  provisions and reinforcements many more than 100 West Aussies  from the battalion clambered down the sides of the ship,  out of port holes and onto the floating and madly rocking pontoon.
There was pandemonion on the pontoon with some reinforcements having enlisted as little as 4 weeks earlier!

Once at Fremantle wharf they scattered frantically to find transport to their varied destinations.  Many arrived back at Fremantle that night and the early next morning, managing to reboard ‘Aquitania’.

However when the ship pulled up anchor later on 16th January there were 93 men AWOL!

Amongst those men who went AWOL and managed to return before ‘Aquitania’ sailed included Bert Norton, John and Jim Gilmour, Clarrie and Jeff McDonald, Jim Elliott and Jim Dore just to name a few!

John Gilmour wrote in his book “All in My Stride” ……it had been more than 6 months since we left Perth.  As ‘Aquitania’ prepared to pick up supplies and more troops the last straw for the 2/4th MGB was to be told there would be no shore leave.

Some orders are just too mean to be followed.  The men knew it was possibly their last chance to see their loved ones before they went to war.  When the barges came out we jumped ship by the dozen and in most cases it was a jump of between 3 and 5 metres.  The skippers of the barges were well paid for cooperating and for them the choice was simple:  either head back to the wharf or risk sinking because the longer the barge stayed alongside the more soldiers jumped aboard.  Some men were climbing through the portholes to jump.

An officer pulled his revolver on us and yelled “Stop it”.  He got a kick in the shins and his revolver dropped overboard into the ocean.  There was no way he could identify the culprit in that seething mass of men scrambling for the opening at the side where the supples came aboard.  The men were in no mood for obstruction and the officer was lucky he didn’t go overboard with his revolver.”

“My brother Jim and I jumped on to a water barge where we were soon joined by Clarrie and Jeff McDonald, Jim Elliott and Jim Dore. Once on the wharf we split up and went out separate ways knowing we had to be back the following day to sail away.

It was grand being home, even for a few hours. Perth was full of soldiers because many troops from the Eastern States had never been to Perth and they too had jumped ship to see the Western Australian capital for the first time and maybe the last time. Who could now what the future held for them in those circumstances?

“Getting back onboard the ‘Aquitania’ the next day was tricky. The military police were rounding up all the men and taking them to Fremantle Gaol. Luckily my father a Corporal was a guard at the wharf and was on duty when we returned. He helped me get on the last launch, accompanied by Jeff and Clarrie, before ‘Aquitania’ sailed. By the time we got out to the ship, she was hauling her anchor in and we had to climb aboard using a rope ladder, not any easy feat because the ship was spinning around with the drag on the anchor.

Back on board, some of the men who had been drinking decided it was time for a swim. They dived in from the deck despite a warning from the crew that sharks had been seen scavenging on the ship’s wastes. The departure was delayed while the crew coaxed the swimmers out of the water and up the rope ladder. Being somewhat under the weather this task seemed to take forever. One of the swimmers, Wally Kenny, lived in Fremantle and was a member of the 2/4th. I could understand why he took that farewell swim. Fremantle people generally have a powerful bond of affection for their home city and the clean, flashing waters of the ocean send them a cooling wind, the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ on hot summer afternoons. Wally was taking a last lucky dip in the sources of his city’s sanity during what might turn out to be his last summer. Any West Australian will tell you that such behaviour is fully comprehensible. The war would still be there tomorrow.

So many of us had gone ashore that admission of guilt was voluntary. There were people who would not own up but I wasn’t one of them, and for my sins I received the only red mark in my pay book. I was fined a few days’ pay but proud of it.

The ‘Aquitania’ took us to the Sundra Straits where we transhipped to small Malaysian freighters which took us on to Singapore.”

Those who were unable to re-board ‘Aquitania

Ninety-three members of 2/4th failed to re-board HMT ‘Aquitania’ the morning of 16 January 1942. They were detained at Fremantle Prison before being transferred to Claremont Details Camp, charged (AWOL) and fined. For reasons of age or health, five of these men did not continue their journey overseas.

On 30th January 1942 the remaining 88 men were transported to Fremantle with their escort Officer, Lt. Colin Blakeway and boarded convoy “MS 3” departing Fremantle. The small convoy escorted by HMAS ‘Canberra ‘consisted of seven tankers destined for Palembang on Sumatra and four cargo ships for Tanjong Priok, the Port of Batavia on Java. One of the 4 cargo ships was the 7,475-ton SS ‘Marella’ carrying the machine gunners and their escort officer.

The initial intention had been to put these well-trained machine gunners ashore at Java and transship them onwards to Singapore.

Before they arrived in Java, it was apparent Singapore would fall to the Japanese, and it was decided the machine gunners would remain in Java.  They disembarked at Tanjong Priok on 13th February 1942 where they were moved to their barracks at Meester Cornelis, an older European area on the south side of Batavia. Batavia was divided into three sections. The northern section was the old town, the south was the new town of Weltevreden and further south of this was the new town of Meester Cornelis. The towns formed the municipality of Batavia, covering about 66 square miles.

The machine gunners found they were then reinforcements for the Allied Forces in Java and assigned guard duties at ammunition dumps within the area of Batavia and tasked with movement of stores from the wharves to the aerodromes.

Following the landing of further Australian troops from HMT ‘Orcade’s on 19th February the 2/4th reinforcements joined either 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion or 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion for airfield defence at either Kemajoran or Tjilitan Aerodromes.

By 17th February the Japanese were rapidly closing on Java from both east and west. Singapore had fallen. The Japanese invaded Bali on 18th February and on 19th February Darwin was subjected to aerial attack. General Wavell secretly notified the British joint staff mission Washington on 18th February 1942 that Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore had been lost to the Japanese as had most of the islands of Netherlands East Indies.


On 21st February 1942, Lt-Col Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, Commanding Officer of 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was promoted to Brigadier and appointed to command all A.I.F. troops on Java, to be known as Blackforce. At the same time Brigadier Blackburn was to come under direct control of Dutch Commander, Chief Lt-Gen Hein ter Poorten.

Blackforce consisted of approximately 2,900Australian, British and American troops. Organized on a brigade basis Blackforce consisted of three battalions.

No. 1 Battalion – Total Strength 700

2/3rd Machine Gun Btn under command of Lt-Col Lyneham

One section from 2/6th Field Company

One Officer and a number of other ranks ex-Singapore and a proportion of reinforcement draft from Australia.

No. 2 Battalion – Total Strength 900

2/2nd Pioneer Battalion under command of Lt-Col J.M. Williams with reinforcements from the Middle East.

One Section from 2/6th Field Company.

Allied Troops attached to No. 2 Battalion – Total Strenth 900

American 131st Field Artillery Regiment (less ‘E’ Battery)

British ‘B’ Squadron Kings Own Hussars (equipped with 16 light tanks)

A British signals section from one of five Anti-Aircraft units

No. 3 (Reserve) Battalion (organized into 8 Platoons) – Total Strength 400

A Composite Battalion under command of Capt. (T/Maj.) J.C. de Crespigny

‘C’ Company No. 10 Platoon, 1st Australian Corps Headquarters Guard Regiment as well as those troops ex-Singapore and the reinforcement draft ex-Australia not allocated to other two Battalions.

This 3rd Battalion was formed 28th February when all surplus reinforcements were allotted to this Unit. This included Lt. Colin Blakeway and 40 of the 87 2/4th machine gunners that were transferred across from 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion on this day.

On 1st March Japanese troops simultaneously began their invasion of Java at four different points.

Strategic places like Bandung, Batavia and Surabaya were invaded by two invasion forces totalling 45,000 Japanese troops accompanied by superior Japanese air power.    Following 8 days of fierce fighting and the loss of 1,000s of lives, the Allied Forces surrendered.  The Australians were not happy, they felt the Dutch Forces had’ rushed in’.The Allied troops were advised any further resistance would result in instant reprisals against the civilians.  The Japanese terms of surrender were unconditional.  The Allied POWs were made up of Dutch, Australian, American, British and Naval personnel from Australian and American ships who had survived the sinking of their ships.


Troops retained to defend the Dutch airfields on Java, Batavia, Java, 19-02-1942

Members of ‘Blackforce’ in preparation of invasion of Java Feb/March 1942.