Rabaul was another of the futile and untenable attempts by the 8th Division (as a result of political direction) to defend isolated locations including Timor (Sparrow Force) Ambon (Gull Force) and New Britain (Lark Force), by spreading a limited number of troops too thinly across a wide frontage, resulting in the destruction of all of them.
Rabaul sits on a large natural harbour at the northeastern tip of New Britain. It had been a German colonial possession before the First World War but was occupied by Australian troops in 1914 and had remained an Australian possession since. In 1941, with the growing threat of war with Japan, Australia sent a garrison. This eventually consisted of:
- 2nd/22nd Battalion (/explore/units/542) (part of the 23rd Brigade)
- A coastal defence battery (two 6-inch guns and searchlights)
- An anti-aircraft battery (two antiquated 3-inch guns)
- 17th Anti-Tank Battery
- A detachment of the 2nd/10th Field Ambulance (/explore/units/910)
The Americans suggested a plan to develop Rabaul harbour into a large naval base, but this was not put into effect: the Australian Chiefs of Staff took it for granted that the place could not be held against a Japanese attack. Still, Rabaul would be fought for rather than evacuated. The cost in Australian lives was apparently though worth it, against the psychological effect on others (especially the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies) if such an important place would be given up without a fight.
Above: a postwar photo of Simpson Harbour near Rabaul. From the Official History.
If a Japanese onslaught was not enough to fear, the Matupi volcano, next to the town, spewed vast quantities of black volcanic ash from mid-year to October 1941.
In December a small aerial force arrived: four Hudson aircraft and ten Wirraways. This was enough for reconnaissance, but not to oppose the Zeros. At about the same time European women began to be evacuated.
Japanese air raids began on 4 January 1942. There was a particularly heavy raid on 20 January, featuring around 120 Japanese aircraft. This resulted in the loss of all bar one Hudson and two of the Wirraways. On the 22nd, another heavy raid destroyed the coastal defence battery. On the same day, it was reported that a Japanese naval convoy was approaching, and the soldiers were evacuated out of the town of Rabaul into more defensible positions to the south. However, the troops were told they were going on an exercise, meaning that many didn’t take the equipment they needed. During the evacuation, engineers blew up a bomb dump in the town; the blast shattered the valves in the wireless sets and cut off communication to the outside world.
AAbove: the Japanese invasion fleet assembling at Truk on 9 January 1942. Aerial reconnaissance photo. Wikimedia (commons.wikimedia.org).
Early on 23 January a Japanese landing force of around 5,000 men (mostly from the 144th Infantry Regiment) began landing near Rabaul. They engaged in sporadic fighting with an increasingly disorganised Australian resistance through the day, which resulted in the loss (on the Australian side) of two officers and 26 other ranks, and on the Japanese side of 16 killed and 49 wounded or injured.
According to the Official History, the total strength at Rabaul at the beginning of this fighting was around 1400 military personnel, including six nurses. Of these, “some 400 subsequently escaped to Australia; about 160 were massacred by the Japanese at Tol in early February.” Everyone else was taken prisoner.
A smaller Australian force on New Ireland (to the northeast of New Britain) had been attacked by the Japanese on 21 January. They managed to escape on a damaged civilian ship but this was discovered and bombed by a Japanese plane. The survivors were taken to Rabaul and captivity by the Japanese.
For the Japanese, the capture of Rabaul was a great success. As a large natural harbour it became their principal naval base in the region, and a great support for further Japanese operations in New Guinea and Guadalcanal.
: Australia in the War of 1939-45: Army. 4.412.