THE ENCIRCLEMENT OF RABAUL
In 1884, Germany colonized the north-eastern part of New Guinea including the island of New Britain. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was formed and landed at Rabaul on 17 September 1914.
The Germans quickly surrendered. The Australians suffered light losses although the Australian submarine HMAS AE1 disappeared with all hands-off New Britain on 14 September.
After the war, Australia was given a League of Nations mandate to govern New Guinea.
Rabaul fell to the Japanese on 23 January 1942. The small Australian garrison, Lark Force, was overwhelmed and most of its troops, including six army nurses, were captured. Approximately 400 of the troops escaped to the mainland and another 160 were massacred at Tol Plantation.
In 1942, months after the fall of Rabaul, 1053 Australian prisoners, both soldiers and civilian men, were boarded from Rabaul’s port onto the MS Montevideo Maru.
Unmarked as a POW ship, this ‘Hellship’ proceeded without escort towards the Chinese island of Hainan, when she was sighted by the American submarine USS Sturgeon near the northern Philippines coast.
Unaware of its load, the Sturgeon fired four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru before dawn on 1 July 1942, causing the vessel to sink quickly, with no allied survivors.
- This sinking is the worst maritime disaster in Australia’s history.
- Australian families were not informed for over three and a half years.
- In 2012 the Japanese handed thousands of POW documents to the Australian government including the Montevideo Maru’s manifest.
- On 1 July 2012, on the 70th Anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial was dedicated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Rabaul was developed by the Japanese as their main naval base for the Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns. Beginning in the summer of 1943, U.S. Australian and New Zealand forces in the Pacific launched Operation Cartwheel, a series of amphibious assaults aimed at encircling the major Japanese base at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in the southwest Pacific.
The plan called for MacArthur to approach Rabaul from the southwest, through New Guinea and the southern Bismarck, while Halsey would advance through the Solomons, forming two pincers that would close in on the Japanese base.
In late June, the two-pronged Allied drive toward Rabaul began, both in New Guinea and the Solomons. Lae, on the northern New Guinea coast, fell in mid-September; the allies then seized Saidor, opposite Cape Gloucester, on the westernmost tip of New Britain. By October 1943, Halsey’s forces were ready to attack Bougainville, the largest and westernmost island in the Solomon chain, located just 200 miles from Rabaul at the narrowest sea crossing.
MacArthur’s supply and manpower situation greatly improved. By the start of the Cartwheel operation, he had four U.S. and six Australian and New Zealand divisions, with a number of specialized corps, including paratrooper regiments. The Navy had sent a number of ships to his theatre to augment his slight forces, adding some cruisers and destroyers as well as improved charts of the New Guinea waters.
In December 1943, US Marines landed in New Britain and were soon replaced by US Army troops who were relieved by the 5th Australian Division in late 1944. The Australian established a base at Jacquinot Bay and in early 1945 cleared the Japanese from the western end of the island pushing the Japanese into the Gazelle peninsula with the 5th Division firmly established across the narrow neck of the peninsula between Wide and Open Bays. This line remained quiet until Japan surrendered in August 1945.
After repulsing a Japanese counterattack, the Allies captured Cape Gloucester and its major airstrip by January 16, 1944 and set up a solid defensive line. New Zealand took the Green Islands, southeast of New Guinea, in mid-February, while U.S. forces invaded the Admiralty Islands later that month and captured the Emirau Islands by March 20. On each island they captured, the Allies constructed air bases, allowing them to block any westward movement by the Japanese. In this way, the Allies tightened their stranglehold on Rabaul, effectively neutralizing the 100,000 Japanese troops stationed there by the end of March 1944.
Eventually, the Allies abandoned Rabaul as an objective. They cut off and bypassed Japanese strongholds to attack more lightly defended islands. The criterion became not how many Japanese troops and armaments they could defeat or destroy, but how to obtain islands to use as aerial launching pads en route to Japan with the least risk of casualties.
That said, seizing Japanese held islands in a series of amphibious assaults were rendered costly by the fanatical determination of the Japanese defenders. In the Marines’ campaign to capture Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific Gilbert Islands (November 20–23, 1943), out of a modest-size garrison of 3,000 enemy troops, 1,000 construction workers, and 1,200 Korean forced labourers, just 17 Japanese (one officer and 16 enlisted men) and 129 Koreans survived the battle.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the North, Central, and South Pacific theatre areas, acknowledged the strategic importance of the U.S. victory at Tarawa. “The capture of Tarawa,” he stated, “knocked down the front door to the Japanese defences in the Central Pacific.”
My most vivid memory of early Australian TV was Victory at Sea. This was a mammoth, US-produced, 26-part, half-hour historical documentary series on naval warfare in the Second World War. It ran on Sunday afternoons, and it was gripping stuff.
I remember what seemed like endless hours of footage – shot by insanely heroic cinematographers on American warships – of Japanese kamikaze pilots flying into a wall of anti-aircraft fire. And there was lots of footage of crippled US aircraft coming into land on heaving carriers, pancaking down, and slewing wildly across on the deck in a shower of sparks, and of great battleships wallowing in the monstrous seas of the North Pacific.
I used to love watching this television documentary with a significant US bias about the navy from NBC. It began October 26, 1952, with actor Leonard Graves, who had also worked on The King and I, providing the narration. In an era when television was beginning to dominate American households, which now included millions of veterans just starting to raise families but harbouring powerful memories of their military service, the series was a smash hit.
GARETH MCCRAY OAM
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
LEST WE FORGET