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Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

Chapter I — Why Commandos Were Formed In Fiji

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Chapter I
Why Commandos Were Formed In Fiji

December 8th, 1941, (New Zealand time) was a very significant date for the people of New Zealand; but much more so for their relatives garrisoned in the Fiji Islands of the Pacific. The subsequent expansion south of the Japanese forces was the cause that led to the unusual experiences in the otherwise mundane lives of the New Zealanders mentioned in this narrative.

At the "Washington Conference in 1922, Great Britain and America agreed to the expansion of the Japanese Navy within certain limits. However, this Navy grew and grew until, in 1941, Japan had absolute supremacy in the north-west Pacific. By the early months of 1942, the Japanese had had a succession of victories (though mostly unresisted), which brought them as far south as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands: they had also established bases in the Gilbert Group, less than eight hours flying time from Fiji. At this period the British Navy was being kept busy in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, while the American Navy had not yet recovered from the Pearl Harbour attack.

The combination of these factors placed Fiji in a very critical position for several months while the United States was organising her forces. Fiji possesses, among other things, two good harbours and two airfields: its geographical position put it astride the sea and air routes of all supplies transported from America to Australia and New Zealand. Thus, apart from the use Japan could make of Fiji as a base, the enemy was well aware that to deny the Allies the use of Fiji would mean disaster to New Zealand and Australian life lines.

The small number of troops garrisoned in Fiji was reinforced with all the men New Zealand could spare, or divert page 16from her commitments in the Middle East. It also became necessary to mobilise Fijian manpower where practicable. Even with reinforcements the Force was not large enough to maintain defensive positions at all points of the Fiji Group, so it was divided and troops stationed at each end of Viti Levu, the main island of the Group. These troops were to defend the important strategical points of Suva Harbour and Naurosi Airfield in the east, and Lautoka Harbour and Nandi Airfield in the west. The rest of the island was covered by mechanised patrols; but as there was only one road winding for three hundred miles around the island, and as visibility was restricted because of the dense bush on all sides, the position was not entirely satisfactory. The Third New Zealand Division therefore decided to set up commando units at all the most inaccessible spots between the fixed defence positions. The commandos were to oppose, with delaying action, enemy landings from sea or air, and to deny the enemy the use of the road until the main Allied forces could be brought into position.

The island was divided into three sectors — Western, Eastern, and Southern—and in April, 1942, commando companies were formed in each of these sectors.

The name "commando" was used in its older sense and applied to these units because they were independent companies, almost self-contained. They were more strictly speaking, "guerrillas," for had the Japanese actually landed in Fiji they would have adopted a harassing role; and while they were not large enough forces to prevent a landing, they would have been sharp thorns in the sides of an invading enemy.