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Operation Kingfisher

The cancelled rescue mission that sacrificed Sandakan POWs

 to the Death Marches

Gary Followill

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2023

Paperback    224pp  RRP: $32.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, December 2023


Operation Kingfisher possessed the ingredients for failure from the moment it was conceptulized. The reader, knowing the operation was never launched, with each chapter completed is able to compile a list of contributing reasons leading to the ultimate tragic outcome for the 2500 Australian and UK prisoners of war at Sandakan. This was a textbook case of a total lack of collaboration and commitment at every level by those involved.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was in London appeasing Winston Churchill who still regarded colonial forces as ‘cannon fodder’ for his own grand plans. The fiascos in Singapore, Greece and Crete are testament to Churchill’s attitude.

General Douglas MacArthur had already rescued several large numbers of prisoners from deep within the Philipines using both sea and air resources. By the time he became Supreme Commander Southwest Pacific Area Command, he was more interested in his own publicity in the media. He bypassed his own chain of command by only communicating with Prime Minister Curtin and overlooking the Australian command elements in his own area. For the last two years of the War all the credit and glory of victory was going to be claimed by his American troops. General Blamey was someone MacArthur ‘tolerated’ and any Australian ‘rescue mission’ would detract from his own activities.

Blamey was old-fashioned in his military approach, and operations of a clandestine nature. He did not wish to know about. British and Australian soldiers had been inserted into Borneo (to prevent the Japanese destroying the valuable oil resources and infrastructure, and to hence enable Britain to repay its immense War debt). The UK Special Operations Executive (SOE) wished to run the joint Borneo operation (Operation Semut) that was mainly Special Operations Australia/Special Reconnaissance Department (SRD) service personnel. It reached the stage where the SRD compiled two sets of operation orders – one for the SOE and one for what the SRD intended to do.

Sandakan was being developed by the Japanese as a forward base for its aircraft (the prisoners there being used as labour). The Allies persisted with constant bombing and strafing of the airstrips being constructed, and the Japanese were never going to have two workable runways. While the SRD gained valuable and reliable intelligence through their own eyes and local loyal Dyak warriors, the Australian Headquarters relied on local native ‘gossip’ to gain a current picture of what was taking place at Sandakan. A patrol was inserted some 200km from the camp and moved away from Sandakan! With air superiority, there was not even an aerial photographic reconnaissance flight planned. The Australian HQ were of the opinion that the Sandakan Camp had been deserted!

While the author does not put any single ‘head on a platter’, it is plain to see the compounding effect of the attitudes, political agendas, steps taken and the obvious omissions leading to the cancellation of Operation Kingfisher becoming another addition to the tragedies of war.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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