Remembering the war in New Guinea
New Britain, 1944–45 (Longer text)
Module name: Campaign history (All groups perspective)
This page was contributed by Dr John Moremon (Australian War Memorial)
After invading New Britain in January 1942, the Japanese developed a naval and logistic base at Rabaul. Small Japanese forces had also landed at points along the north and south coasts of New Britain and New Ireland. Rabaul was the only major base developed on the islands, though a garrison of over 10,000 troops was built up at Kavieng, New Ireland, and a forward airbase was established at Gasmata, on the south coast of New Britain.
From early 1942, Rabaul was subjected to a prolonged bombing campaign by Allied bomber squadrons based in mainland New Guinea and later also on Bougainville. Japanese shipping was also attacked. The base was the most heavily defended target in the theatre, and losses were sometimes relatively heavy with three or four aircraft lost in a raid.
Targets were often identified by Australian coastwatchers - civilian men who had volunteered to stay behind and observe enemy activities and were commissioned into the Royal Australian Naval Reserve after the invasion. The Japanese knew of the coastwatchers through the 'native grapevine' and tracked and captured some, often with the assistance of villagers, but other coastwatchers survived with the help of New Guineans who provided warning of Japanese movements and helped them move about the island.
The Japanese maintained their own coastwatching stations along the south coast as far west as Awul, near Cape Dampier. Each post was manned by about 25 troops who gave warning of Allied air raids. They also mounted patrols to capture Allied airmen who had been forced down after their aircraft were damaged over Rabaul.
In 1943 Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) patrols, consisting of Australian and New Guinean troops, went sent to New Britain to gather intelligence, re-establish an Australian presence on the island and to rescue downed airmen. Villagers often suffered reprisals after assisting these patrols. For example, late in 1943 the Japanese sought to reassert their grip on the Nakanai area, where AIB patrols had been helped, by torturing and executing several village officials, and in other instances villagers were killed, beaten or raped. The Australians trained friendly villagers as guerrillas and during February-March 1944 guerrillas killed some 286 Japanese, with just two guerrillas killed. Tribal warfare also erupted as the guerrillas sought retribution on villagers closer to Rabaul who had assisted the Japanese.
In early to mid 1944 the American 1st Marine Division made amphibious landings at Cape Gloucester on the western tip of New Britain, at Arawe on the south-west coast, and at Talasea midway along the north coast towards Rabaul. The new bases were, in effect, American enclaves developed as forward airbases. The Japanese did not attempt to repel them, and the Americans were content to maintain a defensive perimeter around each base.
The AIB strength on New Britain now totalled five Australian officers and ten NCOs along with about 140 New Guinean troops. Their patrols stepped up activities along both coasts. A few hundred Japanese died of hunger and disease when withdrawing from the Nakanai area, near Talasea, and on the south coast the AIB overran three coastwatching stations and pushed the Japanese back to Wide Bay. The Japanese maintained a forward base there with about 800 troops. On the north coast, AIB patrols infiltrated Gazelle Peninsula, on which Rabaul was located, but were pushed back by the Japanese. About 400 villagers who had assisted the Australians came out with the AIB patrols.
Tribal conflicts erupted in the Wide Bay area, as villagers had taken sides during the Japanese occupation. Those closest to Rabaul were more likely to be aligned to the Japanese. In May 1944, a force of 80 Australian-trained guerrillas killed 14 Japanese and 14 of their New Guinean allies - guerrilla warfare continued for several months. The Japanese stepped up patrols in the Wide Bay hinterland and punished villagers suspected of assisting the Allies. Fearing more reprisals, the AIB persuaded many villagers to move to more remote locations, an action which also denied the Japanese potential workers.
In October 1944, the Australian 5th Division, led by Major General Alan Ramsay, took over the American bases and a new offensive against Rabaul began. In November, the 6th Brigade (less one battalion) landed at Jacquinot Bay on the south coast and began advancing along the south coast in conjunction with another advance on the north coast. Opposition was relatively light and by February 1945, after several small amphibious landings along the coasts, the Japanese had been pushed onto the Gazelle Peninsula.
About 93,000 Japanese were contained within the Gazelle Peninsula. The defensive force consisted of the 17th and 38th Divisions, the 65th Infantry Brigade, and detachments from other divisions. In addition, about 22,000 base and line of communication troops and 2,500 naval personnel occupied the base. No ships remained afloat in the harbour and less than thirty aircraft remained, but Allied air raids continued against base facilities and caves used to accommodate Japanese troops.
Chinese, Indian and British prisoners of war had been transported to Rabaul to work as labourers. Most of the 500 British prisoners had been moved to the Solomon Islands, where they perished, but many Chinese and Indians remained. Dozens were killed in air raids or died as a result of mistreatment and poor diet. American and Australian airmen who had been shot down were also held captive, but most of these prisoners were either executed or died and at war's end only six remained alive. Over 100 European civilian internees - mostly missionaries and nuns - and over 300 local Chinese civilians were interned outside Rabaul.
In previous campaigns, the Australians had enjoyed ready access to close air support - but not so on New Britain. In December 1944 a wing of Mitchell bombers (including two Dutch squadrons) was ordered to Jacquinot Bay but it was redeployed after the Dutch requested that the wing be used in the Netherlands East Indies. This left the Australians without dedicated air support apart from a flight of Boomerang tactical reconnaissance aircraft based at Cape Hoskins, some Auster light liaison aircraft and occasional bombing strikes by Beauforts based on mainland New Guinea.
General Hitoshi IMAMURA was content merely to defend the Rabaul perimeter established on the Gazelle Peninsula, knowing that his garrison was too large for the Australian division to overcome. Both sides patrolled the jungle areas in a largely static campaign and battle casualties were relatively low. In fact, the majority of the Japanese army and navy personnel were engaged on food production, with large gardens established in and around Rabaul. The garrison held out until the war's end when over 97,000 Japanese personnel surrendered at Rabaul along with another 12,000 on nearby New Ireland.