Battle of New Britain

The New Guinea Campaign began with the battles of New Britain and New Ireland. In the first month of the Pacific war, Japanese aircrafts reconnoitered the islands before Australian Hudson bombers and Catalina flying boats responded with reconnaissance and bombing sorties over the Japanese naval base in the Caroline Islands. On 4th January 1942, Rabaul experienced its first casualties when three local natives were killed during an air raid then on 23rd January the Japanese invaded New Ireland and Rabaul.

Rabaul was the administrative capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It was occupied by 1000 Europeans, 1000 Asians mainly Chinese with a handful of Japanese, and 3000 New Guinea natives. The entire area of New Britain and New Ireland was covered with villages and plantations.

In March 1941, Lark Force was formed in Australia and deployed to protect the strategically important Simpson harbour in Rabaul.  The unit consisted of 2/22nd Infantry Battalion with coastal, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft batteries equipped with old and outdated guns, supply, signals, and medical detachments, and 80 men from the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. Additionally the 1st Independent Company was stationed in Kavieng on New Ireland tasked with maintaining an air observation post.

When the war in the Pacific begun on 7th December 1941, the Japanese in Rabaul were interned and shipped to Australia. All European women and children were ordered to evacuate but Chinese women and children were left out of the evacuation plan. This left some bitterness among many Chinese men but a handful still volunteered to serve with a militia auxiliary.

The Royal Australian Airforce deployed 10 Wirraways fighters and three Hudson bombers which was tasked with patrolling the seaward approaches and bombed the Japanese-controlled Caroline Islands. Rabaul’s airfields were bombed in an air raid on 4th January 1942 and five days later, a Hudson spotted 13 warships, three merchants ships, and a hospital ship at the Japanese naval base on the island of Truk which indicated an invasion was being planned.

On 14th January, the main fleet carrying the General Tomitaro Horii’s South Sea Force set sail before linking up with the naval task force from Truk whose mission was to capture Kavieng. The combined fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Inque was estimated to have included two aircraft carriers, 14 destroyers, seven cruisers, gun boats, minesweepers, and submarines.

On 21st January, Rabaul was bombed by 109 Japanese aircrafts, and eight Wirraways oppose them in a daring but doomed move. An aircraft crashed, two were shot down, two crash-landed, and another was damaged. A Japanese bomber was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and a Catalina flying boat was also taken out after its crew detected the fleet and signaled a warning.

On 22nd January, Kavieng was captured unopposed and on the same night the main fleet sailed into Simpson harbour. The coastal battery had been put out of action by the air raids previously. At about 2:45 am 144th Regiment began landing and all battalions landed without being opposed except for 10th Battalion which received stiff resistance from an infantry company and the militia in the vicinity of Vulcan beach. After day break Lieutenant Colonel J.J. Scanlan issued orders for a break out “every men for himself.” Besides mopping up actions the Japanese captured Rabaul in a single night and the port and airfields were up and running after two days.

Some troops, the local police, and some civilians retreated south but the Japanese captured 500 European civilians, six army nurses and a number of wounded soldiers (who were later executed). Those who were interned included 350 missionaries, priests, and nuns.

The Chinese were particularly wary of the Japanese because of how they massacred Chinese in other countries. There were executions but not on a large scale. They were instead ordered to live in designated locations outside Rabaul. The men were forced to work as labourers alongside other Chinese who were brought to the island by the invaders. The women and girls were either raped or worked as “comfort women” for Japanese troops until more Japanese, Korean and Chinese comfort women were imported.

Many villages were strongly pro-Australian whilst some were pro-Japanese so they could survive the new regime of the Japanese (or as payback against their rivals). A Japanese who had resided in Rabaul before the war arrived with the invaders and provided some advice on the Australian administrative governance. The Japanese quickly delegated to the village chief known as “Luluai” or “Tultul”. Those who disobeyed orders were punished severely.

Approximately 8,000 locals from mainland New Guinea including some Bougainvilleans who worked in and around Rabaul became stranded on the island. The men fended for themselves or worked for the Japanese either due to ethnic differences or the villagers couldn’t afford to feed them due to a drought on the island. So some of the men ended working as policemen, labourers, and carriers for the Japanese.

Australian troops along with some local policemen appointed by the Australians divided themselves into small parties in an attempt to evade the Japanese. Scanlan had hope to use guerilla tactics but he hadn’t prepared for it. Troops hadn’t been trained for jungle guerilla warfare and supply dumps hadn’t been established. He was expecting the villagers to feed them as they were struggling themselves. Most men were hoping to escape from the island but there were no established routes or assembly points. Only the airforce had evacuation plans in place for its personnel and would use flying boats to evacuate 120 personnel from established evacuation points.

Many men either became exhausted trying to move quickly through the jungle, became lost, struck with tropical disease, or simply gave up.  Japanese patrols and aircrafts left leaflets behind warning the Australians that if they didn’t surrender they would die of hunger. Within a few weeks most of the Australians had surrendered or taken captive (some betrayed by pro-Japanese New Guineans). Most were taken to Rabaul but close to 150 were massacred at Tol Plantation and few other small groups in other places.

About 900 men and six female nurses from Lark Force along with the 1st Independent Company with imprisoned including 200 civilians, some Norwegian sailors whose boat had been sunk in Rabaul, and handful of Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists missionaries. Most were mistreated and worked as labourers up until June 1942 when they were put on a ship bound for Japan; all perished when the Montevideo Maru was sunk by a US submarine. Another group consisting of 60 officers, six army nurses, 17 civilian nurses and female civilians reached Japan safely. Four Australians were held back in Rabaul to work on machinery.

At Vunaope on the outskirts of Rabaul, Roman Catholic missionaries along with missionaries from other countries had been interned and had established food gardens. Unluckily, their camp was bombed by Allied aircrafts killing some of them. Others died of diseases before the remaining survivors totaling around 158 were moved to a place called Ramale and liberated after the war.

Rabaul had been established as a principal base for the Japanese. Over 100,000 army and naval personnel were stationed there. Its workforce was strengthened by local Chinese and New Guineans and later by Chinese, Indian and British prisoners of war shipped to Rabaul in March 1942. The Allies reacted with a bombing campaign which saw fierce aerials battles fought over Rabaul.

If you plan to visit Rabaul, see our Rabaul tours to get there and back.