By Jim Craigie
Following great reversals of fortune early in WW II the French nation was bitterly divided between those who wished to appease the Axis powers and those who desired to continue the struggle. The former, known as the Vichy, were led by the hero of the Great War Marshal Petain and the latter, called the Free French, had an unknown but passionate leader in General de Gaulle. Much of mainland France and most French colonies including those in Indochina were controlled by the Vichy. The symbol adopted by the Free French was the ancient Cross of Lorraine. Rising from the heights of Mont Coffyn above Noumea today is an impressively shaped monument of the Cross of Lorraine which marks the September 1940 overthrow of the local Vichy administration and its changed allegiance to the Free French cause.
In 1941 the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett wrote of New Caledonia: ‘For many years in Australia, New Caledonia was but a name that featured once or twice a year as the goal of a tourist cruise to the South Seas.’ The Australian diplomat John Lawrey commented: ‘Doubtless Burchett had in mind mainly the English-speaking world’, but in France too this remote Pacific colony was little known and little regarded. New Caledonia is not far from Australia, Noumea being less than 1,500 kilometres from Brisbane. While there has always been a neighbourly mutual interest its intensity has varied over the years. Large cruise ships on South Pacific voyages still ply between the east coast of Australia and the French islands, in rapidly increasing numbers, but it is questionable how many passengers know much of their history.
John Lawrey was assistant to Bertram Ballard the Australian Government Representative in New Caledonia in the key war years 1940-1943. Lawrey’s account of those days in The Cross of Lorraine in the South Pacific – Australia and the Free French Movement 1940-1942 was not published until 1982. The many characters therein, either Vichy or Free French, could be difficult to deal with, which made the diplomatic efforts and the coercive impact of an Australian warship in those waters even more impressive.
Early development under colonial rule
Captain James Cook in 1774 was an early visitor to these islands. He named them New Caledonia, thinking of Scotland, but it was the French who annexed them in 1853, seeking localities capable of accommodating penal stations. By 1877 the population was estimated at 2,752 free colonists, 3,032 military and civil personnel, 3,836 political deportees and 6,000 convicts. Little attention was paid to the role or rights of the native residents, the Kanaks. Convict transportation eventually ended by 1901 when there were 8,200 free Europeans compared with 7,800 convicts.
In earlier days there was considerable trade between the Australian colonies and New Caledonia. From 1842 Australian sandalwood traders had included the Isle of Pines and New Caledonia itself in their operations. Jean-Paul Faivre wrote that ‘…in its first years as a French colony New Caledonia ‘gravitated into the Australian orbit…Australians introduced cattle…the exploitation of mineral wealth was originally Anglo-Australian.’ Australians were prominent in the mining industry in the 1870s and many took part in the nickel, chrome and cobalt rush of that decade. Importantly, New Caledonia became the world’s second source of nickel (next to Canada) and smelting began in the colony. Until 1940 Australia was supplying coal and coke to fuel the smelters, with the majority of their output going to Japan. At this time there were about 2,200 Indochinese and 1500 Japanese working in mines.
The French Secretary-General in Noumea, Andre Bayardelle, in close touch with the Japanese Consul and with two General Councillors who were directors of Japanese-controlled mining companies, was planning a post-armistice trade arrangement giving Japan access to New Caledonian nickel and the colony’s coffee and copra. The British Government expressed anxiety that New Caledonian nickel might reach Germany via Japan and the Soviet Union.
However progress for poor whites and Kanaks came slowly. Writer Pierre Benoit in 1928 blamed metropolitan France. He wrote: ‘This is an island of undoubted beauty. After the flatness of Australia it looks like an earthly paradise. But what a contrast there is between this natural splendour and the squalid civilisation that has been brought to it. And yet it would be easy to relieve this poverty and give Noumea the role for which it is so suited – that of one of the main harbours in this Pacific where the fate of the world will be decided.’ How right he was!
John Lawrey writes: ‘The relationship between metropolitan France and her scarcely-wanted Pacific daughter was still in 1940 redolent of an ever-simmering family quarrel. They were out of sight and mostly out of mind.’ In 1940 New Caledonia and its dependencies of the Loyalty Islands [Lifou, Mare and Ouvea] and the Isle of Pines contained 30,000 Melanesian inhabitants. At the end of a century of incomprehension between whites and blacks, the latter lived a life apart on the native reserves [under the control of the Office of Native Affairs]. The bloodiest rebellion in New Caledonia’s colonial history broke out in 1878 with a massacre of gendarmes and settlers, but it was soon suppressed. Lawrey says: ‘It is clear the century before 1940 had been marked by misunderstanding, injustice and destabilisation of the indigenous society.’ Nonetheless, in the 20th century at least, cheerfulness keeps breaking through.
By 1940 direct contacts with Australia had declined to a modest level and only the sudden collapse of France in June 1940 jolted Australia into a new consciousness of its French island neighbour. New Caledonia and other South Pacific islands did not figure significantly in Australian defence thinking in the interwar period, with attention concentrated on the Singapore base. Given the overwhelming military power of Japan it was perhaps inevitable that French Indochina should side with the Vichy. The position in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides was not so clear, where support from Australia and potentially the then neutral United States might be anticipated. Following the Franco-German armistice of 22 June 1940, it was Lawrey’s view that: ‘Unless action was taken – and in practice only Australia could take it – to embrace New Caledonia firmly in the Allied system, Vichy would draw it into a more or less malevolent neutrality presenting obvious openings for the insidious Japanese influence already at work in Indo-China.’
New Caledonia, through its recently installed Governor Georges Pelicier, declared loyalty to Marshal Petain, whereas the New Hebrides under their resident Commissioner Henri Sautot declared themselves for de Gaulle. In New Caledonia the majority of patriotic Caldoches (white inhabitants) and in particular Broussards (bushmen and farmers) believed their future, especially for autonomy, lay with the Gaullists. There was also an inherent fear of Australian annexation should they remain under Vichy control. Accordingly the Governor was deposed on 28 August and replaced by the local Army Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Denis.
In London de Gaulle agitated with the British Government, seeking a warship to be sent to this troublesome colonial outpost to transfer Sautot to Noumea as the new governor. The British Government then called upon its Australian counterpart for assistance. Initially the Australian Government was reluctant to be involved, not recognising the amount of Free French support and whether this might lead to further conflict.
As tensions were building the Australian Government, ignorant of local complications and politics, began to develop plans for economic co-operation with New Caledonia. On 11 July it was decided to send a representative to Noumea to handle Australian aid and co-operation. On 2 August the Australian High Commissioner in London reported that Japan was trying to secure the whole New Caledonia output of nickel and Vichy instructed that this should happen. But in early September General de Gaulle sent an encouraging telegram to the colony and the groundswell of Gaullist sentiment began to look more like a tidal wave.
Prime Minister Menzies and his government wavered but were sternly advised by Britain that de Gaulle was ready to notify Sautot of his appointment and there was no advantage in deferring a decision. Still the Australian Department of External Affairs demurred, Secretary W.R. Hodgson telegraphing: ‘At the moment position in New Caledonia is satisfactory and to stage a de Gaulle revolution on lines indicated is just playing into hands of Japanese without benefiting Allied cause.’ The Commonwealth’s own representative on the spot, Ballard, had sent a report very much in tune with British thinking. The hope of obtaining a complaisant Vichy governor could not be realised. This was enough to tip the scale.
The navy’s here
At this time the RAN’s resources were threadbare with only one obsolete cruiser, HMAS Adelaide, available for such a venture with sufficient firepower to deter potential resistance from the Vichy-controlled sloop Dumont d’Urville then on station. Adelaide, under command of Captain H.A. (Harry) Showers had been dispatched to Vila ostensibly to search for the German raider Orion, but was positioned to provide support to any Government initiative. On 9 September Captain Showers received instructions to convey Governor-designate Sautot to Noumea. In deference to Franco-Australian relations Sautot was embarked in the Norwegian tanker Norden, which was escorted by Adelaide. While the Gaullist supporters on New Caledonia were mobilising, General de Gaulle had specified there must be no bloodshed. A contemporary report by George Baudoux described the French settlers as …bushmen from every corner of the east and west coast…of fierce aspect…resolute men, real Frenchmen, patriots…the land is awake and stirring.’ All night hundreds streamed towards Noumea, assembling some 30 kilometres from the capital in the small hours of Thursday 19 September.
Arriving off Noumea the situation was tense with Adelaide at action stations as the reception proposed by Commandant Denis could not be ascertained. With the guns of the town’s shore battery and those of Dumont d’Urville trained upon them Showers decided he could not risk Norden and transferred Sautot to Adelaide. Showers then steamed directly into the harbour. The battery’s garrison having been ordered to fire by Denis, refused and ran up the flag of the Cross of Lorraine. Commander de Quievrecourt in Dumont d’Urville remained impassive as a Vichy ship awaiting orders.
Governor Sautot was landed by launch to an enthusiastic reception. He then proceeded on foot through the town to Government House, escorted by a large crowd singing the Marseillaise. For the rest of the day and the following night Adelaide patrolled off the harbour entrance with the object of inspiring confidence ashore and exercising restraint on Dumont d’Urville, whose captain kept his force out of harm’s way.
The presence of Adelaide was undoubtedly a stabilising force and allowed a negotiated and respectful withdrawal of Dumont d‘Urville, carrying those professing allegiance to Petain, thus putting an end to the Vichy presence in the South Pacific. Showers, in consultation with the Australian Government’s representative Ballard and British consul W.A. Johnston, warned the local de Gaulle committee against any action that might upset a peaceful solution. This resolution and its bloodless outcome marked the beginning of a phase of co-operation between Australia and Free France which set the scene for the part later played by New Caledonia in the first American counter offensive in the Pacific Ocean war. This was a rare success by a Commonwealth country in dealing with Vichy. Governor Sautot summarised his appreciation thus: ‘…..to Captain Showers, to his officers and ratings of the cruiser Adelaide, without the support of which the ralliement to General de Gaulle no doubt would not have succeeded. Their professionalism was equalled only by their human compassion, because they were very judicious in avoiding a bloody and futile struggle with the Vichy.’
On 21 September the Australian Naval Board instructed Showers to inform Dumont d’Urvilles he could not be allowed to influence the free decision of the New Caledonian inhabitants; that if she attempted to use force it would be answered by force, but she would be accorded facilities for fuel and supplies if she were to proceed to Indo-China. Sautot agreed to this proposal. Amid ongoing argument Showers told the Naval Board the situation ashore would not be stable until the Vichy French warship departed. On the morning of 24 September Commander de Quievrecourt informed Captain Showers he was ready to sail for Saigon and Dumont d’Urville put to sea the next day.
Uncertainty ashore continued to plague Showers and the Australian and British consuls Ballard and Johnson until on 27 September Showers met the de Gaulle committee. He asked its members to: ‘…use your best endeavours towards restoring harmony among all sections of the community, and especially by dissuading your followers from all provocative or retaliatory speech or action.’ The committee promised complete co-operation and on 4 October Adelaidewas able to sail from Noumea.
It remained for new Governor Sautot to consolidate the Free French authority and organise economic and defence co-operation with Australia. There were still opposing factions to cope with and army and police to find – most gendarmes had opted for repatriation. Notably, the influential Roman Catholic clergy remained honourably neutral. There was grumbling that Australia was not coming quickly enough to the colony’s aid. Meanwhile, the RAN remained perturbed about the situation. It feared there was an imminent threat of a Japanese takeover or a Vichy counter coup, and that the stability of Sautot’s regime might be threatened by mercenary opportunists prepared to sell out to the Japanese. To add to the tension Governor Sautot was sentenced to death in absentia by a Vichy military court in Saigon.
Australian military aid
On 30 December 1940 Australian Navy Minister W.M. Hughes submitted to the War Cabinet a paper ‘New Caledonia – importance of taking immediate action to prevent it falling into Japanese hands’. This was approved and an Australian military mission went to New Caledonia in February. It recommended an advanced operational air base, including flying boat and land plane facilities, two six-inch coast defence guns for Noumea with associated searchlights, and provision of arms, ammunition and equipment for the local forces. A French officer, Dubois, was sent to attend an Australian War Cabinet meeting on 17 April, emphasising that no impression was to be given that French sovereignty was compromised.
John McEwan, now Minister for Air, was keenly interested in integrating New Caledonia into the regional air defence system, and the Minister for the Army, P.C. Spender, said that economically New Caledonia should be regarded as part of Australia. The War Cabinet agreed, within the limits of available resources, of arms and equipment for local defence (about 1,200 men under arms) at sufficient strength to deter anything less than a major attack on New Caledonia. On 20 May, Governor Sautot agreed to the War Cabinet’s decisions. The flying boat base was established with a small permanent RAAF detachment, and Noumea became a link in the reconnaissance line maintained by No. 11 Squadron, RAAF, from Port Moresby through Honiara (British Solomon Islands) and Vila (Vanuatu) to Sydney. Two six-inch coastal defence guns were obtained from New Zealand and installed on Ouen Toro hill in Noumea, with a small Australian artillery detachment training local troops (the guns remain a modern-day tourist attraction).
All this was on a fairly small scale, but of lasting importance was the work now set in hand by the RAAF to construct three airfields which were to play a useful part in the first year of the Pacific war. By now there was a rising demand for nickel matte and chrome which were of direct importance to the American rearmament program. The US was ready to buy as much as it could get. Though de Gaulle remained sensitive, the colony’s commitment to his leadership and to the Allied effort was never thenceforth called seriously into question. The air had been cleared somewhat by a personal conversation in London on 7 March 1941 between de Gaulle and Australian Prime Minister Menzies.
The Americans are coming
Then came Pearl Harbor which Vichy initially considered a decisive Japanese victory in the Asia-Pacific region. One proposal was for the recapture of New Caledonia by the Vichy French from Saigon, who would offer the Japanese preferred access to the nickel. On 23 January 1942 a hastily assembled American task force sailed from New York bound for New Caledonia. The US War Department had already sought co-operation by British, Australian and New Zealanders in the development of facilities for the transit of heavy bombers through the South Pacific and Australia.
Australia recommended that any trans-Pacific reinforcement route should pass through New Caledonia where three aerodromes were already being developed. The Americans were brushing aside Free French rule and de Gaulle did not approve. An American inspection party somehow reported that about 90% of the population at the other end of the island is Japanese and amounts to about 20,000 people – the true number was less than 1,500. De Gaulle instructed the Free French delegation in the US to negotiate with the American authorities to secure acceptable conditions for the use of facilities in French territory on the trans-Pacific air route. The wrangling went on but eventually de Gaulle announced that the French National Committee was placing at the disposal of the Allied Forces all the facilities that may be offered by bases in the New Hebrides, Tahiti and New Caledonia.
On 9 December the US told Australia that since New Caledonia was so close the Americans must assume that Australia would take responsibility for its defence. The US would naturally do all that was feasible. While there was little enough Australia could do from its available resources arrangements were made for No 3 Independent Company to leave Sydney on 16 December to enhance the morale of the Free French Forces. This was a 300-strong highly trained guerrilla unit commanded by the remarkable Major D.G. Matheson, a West Australian engineer who had won the Military Cross and Military Medal in WW I. Lawrey writes: ‘In Washington thinking had already begun to move in the direction of New Caledonia’s integration into strategic planning, which was to lead inevitably to the reluctant assumption by the US of responsibility for garrisoning the island. If Australia were to be used as a base it was essential to procure a line of communications…This meant the US must instantly move to save Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and New Caledonia as well as making certain of the safety of Australia itself.’
Australia lobbied the US intensively, arguing that New Caledonia was a special and urgent case and Australia didn’t have the means to effectively defend it. Once the US decision was taken it was executed with remarkable speed. A force of 17,000 men (to be joined by 1,500 Army Air Force personnel from a pool being formed in Australia) sailed on 23 January from New York for Melbourne where it was to be transhipped. It included most of the elements of what was to be named the America Division and was to campaign from Guadalcanal to Japan. Hastily assembled, its commander was Brigadier-General Alexander M. Patch Jnr. The Australian dockers in Melbourne, in mid-summer heat, had the convoy reloaded in eight days and it arrived in Noumea on 12 March. Reinforcements of 5,000 men were sent from the US before the end of March. A third infantry regiment, the 164th, was later to be the first Army unit committed to Guadalcanal.
The Free French authorities on New Caledonia had at first resisted what they saw as something of a takeover, but eventually agreed that General Patch would be in charge of military operations. The arrival of the Americans increased the population by nearly 50 per cent. Their task was herculean but they had at least the benefit of the modest but creditable preliminary work done by the Australian forces. Airfields had been surveyed and partly constructed; there was a working flying boat base at Noumea, Patch had under his command a tiny but highly trained and useful contingent of Australian troops who were responsible for the land defence of the north. The RAN was operating a signal station at Noumea, and three Australian liaison officers filled in Patch’s knowledge of local intelligence.
However the Free French High Commissioner, Rear Admiral d’Argenlieu and his staff, sent out by de Gaulle, continued to be a thorn in Patch’s side and also the local Free French. Despite Governor Sautot’s popularity he was seen as divisive and was removed from office. The sloop Chevreuil which had been fitting out in Sydney was recalled by d’Argenlieu to transport the now ex-Governor to New Zealand where he later made his way to France. The local Free French rioted over Sautot’s fate and there were frequent strikes.
These local political troubles in May 1942 didn’t help General Patch’s preparations to stop the Japanese advance to New Caledonia, but the naval battles of the Coral Sea and above all Midway were about to disrupt Japanese plans. Thenceforth New Caledonia and the New Hebrides would play a role as the bastions of the counter-offensive conceived and mounted by the US Navy, which by the beginning of 1943 was beating back the left prong of the Japanese thrust into the Australasian region.
Noumea served as the headquarters for Admirals Chormley and Halsey, successive Commanders-in-Chief of the South Pacific Area from 1942 to the end of the war. The island’s port and air bases were critical for shipping and as supply base for reinforcements of aircraft, men and munitions. During 1944-1945 Noumea was the second biggest naval port (in tonnage) after San Francisco.
For the fighting men the pleasant island of New Caledonia was not only a base but a haven. Above all Noumea became a humming and effective support base. Again Lawrey informs us: ‘The frivolous conduct of one misguided French patriot (d’Árgenlieu) does not diminish the value of the alliance forged by Australia and the Free French in the Pacific while the US was still formally neutral…the successful execution of Menzies’ bold decision to co-operate with the Free French was the achievement of a tiny group of men on the ground – Australian, British and French.’
There remained the Kanaks, still striving to be ‘equal’ with the French. Major Matheson’s Australian guerrillas found them helpful comrades. A company report said: ‘Our section lived in concealed camps, mostly huts built for us by the natives. Possibilities of using local inhabitants in harrying operations against the enemy were fully explored. The natives are a fine race, intelligent and strong. They are loyal subjects…more wish to enlist than can be accepted…in some districts however they always have in the back of their minds that the French came and took their land only 80 years ago.’
In the late 1800s many Kanaks were taken to Queensland to work on sugar plantations. How many were forced to go as ‘indentured labour’ is a matter of dispute. Apart from hard labour they were skilled at building low stone walls separating paddocks. Examples of their work can be seen around Bundaberg and also back on their home soil on the island of Lifou. With the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901 many Kanaks were sent back to their islands. An estimated 4,000 were allowed to stay in Australia.
Progress for the native people of New Caledonia fluctuated, seemingly dependent on which political party was in power in France. The Kanaks were allowed to move out of their reserves in 1956. There was much violence in following years with 300 French police killing 19 Kanaks in the Ouvea Massacre in 1988. Two Kanak leaders were assassinated in 1989. One of them, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, is remembered in the building on the outskirts of Noumea of the spectacular Tjibaou Cultural Centre designed by world-famous architect Renzo Piano. If you want to see it, and the huge statue of Tjibaou, don’t go to Noumea on a public holiday as it will be closed (though it is open on Sundays).
A referendum for independence from France is still to be held. In the meantime an officially recognised Kanak flag flies peaceably everywhere alongside the tricolour. The capital city of Noumea still has a very French feel and young French soldiers train in its surrounds, while Kanaks dominate the outer islands. And more and bigger cruise ships continue to arrive unaware of events in the not so distant past.
What became of the principal actors?
The principals who helped make this coup de force, one of the finest displays of diplomacy, accompanied by just the right amount of coercive military persuasion all continued to make further important contributions.
Henri Sautot was found another diplomatic post out in distant Africa but returned to New Caledonia after the war and became a popular and successful mayor of Noumea. He died in the colony to which he had given so much of his life in 1963 just short of his 78th birthday.
John Lawrey made his mark in this forgotten outpost and later achieved senior positions in the Australian Foreign Service including four years in Paris and a number of ambassadorial posts.
Harry Showers continued his impressive naval career throughout the war especially in command of HMA Ships Hobart and Shropshire during the Pacific campaign and was later promoted Rear Admiral.
In the continued relationships between Australia and New Caledonia let us not forget the contribution of these men in establishing the Cross of Lorraine in the South Pacific.