1914:  Navy Before Gallipoli   

 

It is not a well-known fact, but the very first Australian shots in WW1 were fired by the Royal Australian Navy in Rabaul, New Guinea, which was a German colony. At that time the British were concerned that Germany might pose a threat with their Far East Asian Fleet, so Australia and New Zealand were asked to take over the German territories and destroy radio communications. The force was the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, also the first joint service group.

Two weeks after war was declared, a group of 500 naval reservists (a ‘Dads Army’ of retired veterans and new and barely trained recruits) was despatched, fought and won the Battle of Bita Paka. The ships sailed from Sydney carrying a 50-year-old accountant from Perry’s hardware store in George Street, Brisbane, Lieutenant Thomas Arthur Bond and 35-year-old railway clerk Lieutenant Roland Bowen from Petrie.

The ANMEF convoy stopped and trained for a short while on Thursday Island, practicing amphibious landings then proceeded to capture Rabaul, the German capital and all their colonies in the Pacific by 12th September 1914.

Their story has almost disappeared from history. Outgunned, outnumbered and in very alien territory, they managed this by a combination of surprise, bold deception about the size of their force, sheer bravado and some controversial tactics. The ANMEF lost only 7 men in this battle and the first to be killed was Able Seaman Billy Williams, our first casualty in WW1.

Bowen’s group captured 3 German officers and 20 native police by telling through an interpreter that a force of 800 was landing on the beach. They surrendered and Bowen used them as shields to deter their native recruits from firing.  This tactic is disallowed but Bowen was not aware of all of the Rules of Engagement. The story goes that the Navy wasn’t sure whether to court martial him or decorate him, so they did the latter. He was Mentioned in Dispatches and went on to enjoy a long distinguished Naval career.

From Hamilton, Bond was a 50-year-old reservist when he joined up full time. Near the wireless station Bond was confronted by a heavily armed group of 8 German officers and 20 native police, apparently intent on defending the wireless station. Lt. Bond, aware he was covered, acted swiftly and daringly.

He bounded to the Germans and snatched pistols from their holsters. Another surprise act that so stunned the Germans and the native soldiers that they succumbed. Lieutenant Bond won the Distinguished Service Order for this action in another first for the new Royal Australian Navy. After serving at Gallipoli and the Suez Canal, he returned to Brisbane he continued his work as an accountant and stockbroker and ended up as head of the Stock Exchange.

Another story of ordinary people performing extraordinary things in the service of their country, is what ANZAC Day is all about.

The ANMEF will be remembered at a commemoration by the Royal Australian Naval Association at Jack Tar at Southbank, Brisbane (next to the Ship Inn) on Thursday 28th April at 11am.

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3 comments

  • J Sahariv April 19, 2022   Reply →
  • Greg Bland April 19, 2022   Reply →

    The first shots of WW! were fired by the Fort Nepean battery to prevent a German cargo vessel exiting Pt Philip Bay. https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/first-shot-fired

  • David Watson April 19, 2022   Reply →

    The first shots of World War I were fired in Melbourne, Australia, on August 5, 1914. They were fired by a coastal artillery battery at Port Phillip Heads when the German merchant vessel SS Pfalz attempted to slip out of port before the declaration of war was made known.
    Incidentally the same battery fired the first Australian shots of WW2 as well, BUT,
    Early on September 4 1939, at the outbreak of World War 2, gunners at the historical Fort Nepean lined up their six-inch gun on what they thought might be a German freighter fleeing from Port Phillip Bay – and missed.

    That was the intention. The vessel had failed to identify itself and the shot, aimed across the bow, produced the intended result.

    The master promptly identified his ship as Australian freighter SS Woniora and not German at all.

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