Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial New Britain is approximately 500 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide, with a mountain spine rising to 2,500 metres. Rabaul, situated on the Gazelle Peninsula in the north of the island, was occupied by Japanese army and navy forces in January 1942. This was initially to provide advance cover for the main naval base at Truk, but it became the most important logistics base for operations in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In addition, Japanese forces established advance airfields at Surumi and Gasmata on the south coast of New Britain, and at nearby Kavieng on New Ireland.
The human face of war
Rabaul was subjected to prolonged Allied air raids from early 1942. In response, the strongest anti-aircraft presence in the region was established around Rabaul. By the end of the war, the Japanese had been forced into a system of over 300 kilometres of tunnels which had been dug into the hills around the shattered township. Over 90,000 Japanese troops were stationed in New Britain in early 1944, in addition to around 13,000 on New Ireland. The 8th Area Army was led by General IMAMURA Hitoshi, whose army formation included the 17th and 38th Divisions, the 65th Infantry Brigade, as well as tank units, anti-aircraft units, and associated logistics and medical units. The South-East Area Fleet was led by Vice Admiral KUSAKA Jin’ichi and included the 11th Air Fleet, as well as naval landing troops, airfield establishment and logistics units.
After defeats for the Japanese in Papua and the Solomon Islands in January 1943, and the heavy losses incurred in the Dampier Strait in March while attempting to reinforce garrisons in New Guinea, General IMAMURA sought to strengthen his position in New Britain to protect supply lines to the New Guinea mainland and to prepare for future offensives. In September 1943, however, Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo responded to the changing situation of the war in the South-West Pacific Area by instituting a “vital national line of defence”. This policy fundamentally adopted a holding strategy against anticipated Allied counter-offensives.
The Allies, as part of their overall counter-offensive strategy in the South-West Pacific Area, had decided at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 to invade and occupy Rabaul after the Solomon Islands. By August 1943, however, determined Japanese resistance and unwillingness to capitulate resulted in the Allies adopting policies to bypass Japanese strongholds such as Rabaul. Consequently, landings were planned in the west of New Britain, as well as in Bougainville and New Guinea, to tie down and isolate Japanese formations rather than engage them head on. With control of the Huon Peninsula in Allied hands, western New Britain would also enable control of the Vitiaz and Dampier Straits, providing safe passage to the north coast of New Guinea and beyond.
As a precursor to these invasions, the Allies sent several Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) parties to New Britain to gather intelligence and join with coast-watchers, who had been active around Cape Orford. Several of these parties, which consisted of Australian officers and local soldiers, were successful and provided valuable information on landing sites, Japanese defensive strengths, and provided advance information of Japanese air raids. In addition, the Allies intensified air raids on Rabual and other areas of New Britain prior to their landing operations.
The western area of New Britain was defended by Major General MATSUDA Gen’s 65th Brigade, deployed around Cape Gloucester with elements on Umboi island. Further, units from the 17th Division defended Surumi near Gasmata. The Americans landed the 112th Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel Alexander Miller, at Arawe on 15 December 1943, and the 1st Marine Division, led by Major General William Rupertus, at several points on Cape Gloucester on 26 December. Resistance by the increasingly isolated Japanese troops in the face of a strong American force continued in pockets for several weeks. By mid-January, however, Major General MATSUDA ordered a general withdrawal to the east. By mid-February 1944, 17th Division units around Gasmata also withdrew, leaving western New Britain in Allied hands.
The intensification of Allied air raids over New Britain from mid-October 1943 had the effect of increasing Japanese air strength in the area, as reinforcements were sent from the Japanese naval base at Truk. By early November, the Japanese South-East Area Fleet had over 500 aircraft stationed at Rabaul. The Allies responded in force with strong raids against Rabaul from carrier-based aircraft, as well as some of the heaviest bombing raids in the Pacific to date during November. Eventually, the Allied strategy was effective, with most Japanese air units at Rabaul withdrawn to Truk, though several raids against American landing positions in western New Britain were undertaken during December 1943. Allied raids continued against various targets in New Britain during January, with decreasing levels of resistance by Japanese air units. After a series of powerful Allied raids against Truk on 17–18 February, in which 270 Japanese planes were destroyed, the Japanese withdrew serviceable aircraft from Rabaul and effectively handed the Allies control of the air over New Britain.
The withdrawal of Japanese ground units from Cape Gloucester and Gasmata, combined with the lack of an operational air force in the region, effectively isolated Rabaul and the Gazelle peninsula from February 1944 until the end of the war. Under these circumstances, the Japanese army and navy were forced to strengthen their efforts at self-sufficiency, devoting much man-power to agriculture and small-scale manufacturing. The large proportion of soldiers with farming backgrounds, and the technical expertise of many navy personnel, provided for the manufacture of an amazing range of products, including soy sauce, sugar, ink, battery acid, and even gunpowder. By the end of the war, self-sufficiency efforts at Rabaul produced 85 per cent of the requirements of the force for New Britain, New Ireland and York Island.
American units which occupied bases in western New Britain were content to secure the local areas, and did not push east towards the main Japanese strength. In late 1944, control of these areas was ceded to the Australian army, freeing the American troops for campaigns aimed at recapturing the Philippines. The 5th Australian Division, under the command of Major General Alan Ramsay, was charged with advancing the line of Allied control to Open Bay and Wide Bay – the line separating the Gazelle Peninsula from the rest of the island – without a commitment of major forces. The first step, in April 1944, was to reorganise the AIB patrols, which had continued to operate in central New Britain, into two concentrations on the north and south coast. Both forces engaged in guerrilla operations against Japanese outposts, assisted downed Allied pilots, and tried to garner support among the local peoples.
On 8 October 1944, the first units of the 5th Division, comprising the 32nd Battalion, landed at Cape Hoskins on the north coast. These were followed by landings at Jacquinot Bay on the south coast by the 6th Brigade on 4 November, and the 13th Brigade in late November to early December. The remaining major unit of the division, the 4th Brigade, was not in New Britain complete until late February 1945. Ramsay’s task was similar to that of the AIB patrols; namely to limit Japanese movements to the Gazelle Peninsula. This was achieved by March 1945 with the removal of a well-entrenched Japanese garrison from near Waitavalo on Henry Reid Bay. Air support for these operations was limited, owing to commitments in other areas, but RAAF units based on Goodenough Island carried out raids on Rabaul in October and November. No. 5 Squadron was operational from Cape Hoskins after February 1945, and by May 1945, RNZAF units were flying out of Jacquinot Bay.
The Australian forces suffered over 200 casualties, including 91 killed, in the campaigns after July 1944. This was in addition to casualties from AIB patrols in the earlier period, and Allied air crews over the area. These figures were light compared to casualties in other areas during the period. On Bougainville, the Australians pursued a more aggressive policy, with resulting higher casualties, against the Japanese 17th Army. In New Guinea, the Japanese 18th Army, under General ADACHI Hatazô, defended their positions with resolution, suffering appalling casualties in the process. General IMAMURA’s forces at Rabaul, however, while relatively well provisioned and armed, were steeling themselves for a final onslaught by Allied troops. Had this offensive opened, casualties on both sides would have been much higher.
Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)
Printed on 01/22/2021 11:39:19 PM
New Britain is approximately 500 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide, with a mountain spine rising to 2,500 metres. Rabaul, situated on the Gazelle Peninsula in the north of the island, was occupied by Japanese army and navy forces in January 1942. This was initially to provide advance cover for the main naval base at Truk, but it became the most important logistics base for operations in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In addition, Japanese forces established advance airfields at Surumi and Gasmata on the south coast of New Britain, and at nearby Kavieng on New Ireland.