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The capture of Rabaul and Kavieng, January 1942

The Japanese having captured Tarakan and Menado were ready in the last week of January 1942 to thrust their trident further south. One prong aimed at Kavieng and Rabaul, another towards Ambon and Timor, and one at Balikpapan, Bali and Java. On the far right the Japanese also leapfrogged Singapore and landed on Sumatra then to the western part of Java, near Batavia. These advances by the Japanese carried them across the equator and established bases in Dutch and Australian territory whence they would advance onto the final objectives, the New Guinea mainland and the isolation of Java.

  The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson

Lieutenant-Colonel Carr's 2/22 Battalion of the AIF 23rd Brigade arrived at the crescent shaped island of New Britain during March and April 1941 to garrison the port, protect the airfield and seaplane anchorage and act as a link in a forward line strung across the islands to Australia's north like a necklace around her neck.

The other military units, apart from the native constabulary, were some eighty men of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, raised by Lt-Col Walstab, a police Superintendent, for part time service after the outbreak of the war in 1939. Other scratch formations arrived, a coastal defence battery with two 6inch guns and searchlights, two out-dated 3inch anti-aircraft guns and the 17th Anti-Tank Battery plus small detachments including the 2/10 Ambulance unit with stretcher bearers plus six nurses.

The European population amounted to about 1,000 persons but the main shopping centre was four streets containing Chinese stores, in the centre was the Bung, a native market, Chinese maidens, German missionaries, Japanese traders and ubiquitous natives all mixed with Khaki and not so spotless Whites of military uniforms.

In July, the 1st Independent Company (Indp. Co.) commanded by Major Wilson, a farmer and grazier in peacetime, passed through Rabaul on the way to Kavieng, New Ireland. Sections of the commando company were to protect the airfields there and other important positions as indicated by the Australian Cofs, extending the forward observation trip wire line, now a distance of 1,600 miles long.

From July to October dust and fumes from Matupi blackened the township of Rabaul, covered weapons, rotted tents, irritated throats and killed vegetation.

During December four Hudson and ten Wirraway aircraft, under the command of Wing Commander Lerew, wer established at Rabual. Japanese aircraft, travelling singly and very high, began to overfly the area and a couple of weeks after Japan's invasion of Malaya compulsory evacuation of all European women and children began on the islands of the Kaiser Wilhelm Archipelago.

The Australian War Cabinet approved of the dispatch of the 3/2 Independent Company (21 officers and 312 ranks) to Noumea as a gesture to the Free-French and to carry out demolitions if necessary.

On 9 January a RAAF Hudson aircraft made a courageous flight over Truk, 695 miles north of Rabual, there were large congregations of shipping and aircraft assembled. The Japanese Fourth Fleet was being concentrated at Truk and the following month of the new year bombing raids on Rabual intensified.

The Japanese delivered high-level bombing attacks, leisurely hitting, wharves, airfields and other targets. The heavy bombers flew in tight pageant type formations while Zero fighters performed audacious aerobatics attacking whatever they fancied. There was a lull in the air raids by the end of December but this only brought out four enemy cruisers, spotted by a Catalina flying boat, they heavily shelled Kavieng.

The next day just before 8am, 22 December, forty-five enemy fighters and dive-bombers began machine gunning and hitting points around Vanakanau airfield including the Australian company defence position.

The dive-bombers returned to Praed Point and the battery deployed there, the enemy warbirds followed the wide metalled road cut through the greenery to the gun emplacements. A heavy pall of semi-black smoke hung over the defence position, dazed survivors and eleven killed.

With the silencing of the Praed Point battery, the catering of the airfield and the evacuation of the airforce Scanlan decided the original tasks set for the force was no longer applicable. He ordered the planned demolitions and the township of Rabual evacuated. In the meantime an enemy convoy of eleven ships were sighted from shore through a telescope, "just visible on the horizon, and steaming south-east" and as it disappeared half an hour later twenty vessels had been counted.

Japanese troops in Kavieng, January 1942

Japanese troops in Kavieng, January 1942

That night soon after midnight the hum of an approaching aeroplane was heard across the harbour, then a parachute flare was dropped illuminating the whole bay. Other flares had been dropped continuously over Vanukanau airfield throughout the night. At about 1am landing craft could be heard and were seen making towards the causeway. More landing craft could be observed silhouetted against the numerous fires and demolitions that were ablaze in and around Rabual Harbour and township.

In the morning a string of transports entered the Harbour from the east disembarking landing parties. By now the crescendo of Australian weapons fire was dissipating due to ammunition shortages and Japanese overwhelming successes.

Some thirty one enemy vessels could be seen in the Harbour, three destroyers in line abreast steamed across the water giving covering fire to the landing craft and barges dotting the deep waters and shallow foreshores. An observation post at Taliligap overlooked the airfields at Lakunai and Vunakanau and could see the whole Harbour. The battalion commander Major Scanlan had ordered another withdraw to prevent from being overwhelmed, having McInnes' company astride the road the Kokopo Road at Threeways, cover the pull back of Owen's company, and the HQ withdrew to Tomavatur.

Traver's company had been ordered to a pre-arranged position on the Kokopo Road at Taliligap, set up a defence line and dug in with anti-tank guns, mortars and machine-guns. Half an hour later survivors of Shier's company from Raluaua began arriving in the darkness along the slippery track. Some reinforced the thin front line others were moved on.

By mid-morning the numerous Japanese troops had surrounded the forward positions and under the covering fire of mortars the Australians fell back.

McInnes' position was becoming untenable too. Soon rumours that the Japanese were coming through "in thousands" and with enemy aircraft flying low, strafing and shelling the roads the situation worsened.

Further withdraws were ordered to relieve the most stricken forward units, even modest advances were attained to reach platoons, sections, groups cut off.

In one advance by Captain Donaldson's platoon covered by Tolman's pioneers, linking up with a forward unit cut off and receiving light small arms fire and mortar projectiles, had a Lance-Corporal Simson, skilfully using all available cover, and came upon ten Japanese soldiers, he fired his Tommy-gun taking them all down. Two trucks were brought back during this escapade, one driven by Private Clinton, and enemy troops that blocked the return journey were checked by sub-machinegun fire. With Corporal Sloane playing a dominant role. It was estimated by Donaldson that fifty enemy casualties had resulted, his platoon had none. By the end of the day organised resistance to the Japanese rule on New Britain had ended. The Australians were forced into a deep valley, split up into small parties and withdrew, again, to the south-west and south east. The strength of the Rabaul garrison on 23 January was estimated at 76 officers and 1,314 others plus six nurses. Of this number 2 officers and 26 men were killed in the battles that day, some 400 eventually escaped to Australia via New Guinea or direct sea voyage, and about 160 were massacred by the Japanese at Tol in early February, the rest were to become prisoners of the Japanese military.

The Japanese formation that took part in this sledge-hammer attack to crack an eggshell was the Nankai, or South Seas Force, commanded by a short and balding Major-General Tomitaro Horii, previous commander of the Japanese 55th Infantry Division which was the principal unit the force had been drawn from. The main units were the I., II. and III. Battalions of the 44th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Kusunose, a mountain artillery battalion, the 15th Independent Engineers Regiment, and aircraft artillery, transport and medical detachments, about 5,000 strong. And supported by three special landing forces each about a battalion in size. On 10 December this Japanese invasion force carried out practice landings at Guam, then expecting strong resistance at Rabual from the Australians in the next phase of the advance, or taking no risks, two aircraft carriers and two battleships were assigned to the task force. The Japanese propaganda wireless radio program reported their loses were 16 killed and 49 "injured".

Kavieng had been attacked two days before by sixty Japanese aircraft, bombers, dive-bombers and fighters. The 1/2 Independent Company had established concealed positions and the enemy aircraft were met with a brisk fire of machine guns, one warplane crashed into the sea. The vessel Indua Star cast her moorings, although putting up a stout defence was heading towards Albatross Channel, control of the ship was lost and running upon a reef was reported lost.

The expected two-pronged landing was next, the wounded were gathered at the civil hospital and Major Wilson decided Kavieng was untenable. At 11am the Indua Star returned, she was leaking badly and considered unseaworthy by her skipper but this presented the Australians with a means of escape. Orders were issued to patch the hull at Kuat Harbour and deploying of troops to cover this eventuality. When these moves had been completed a message received by wireless from Rabaul stated that an enemy fleet "one aircraft carrier and six cruisers" approaching from the north-west.

An outpost was left at Kavieng under Lieutenant Dixon and the soldiers heard sounds in the early morning darkness being muffled by the slight rain. About five minutes later Very lights were being fired, many barges were coming to the shore with much shouting and shooting. Wilson went to the airfield and ordered the demolition charges to be lit, then the entire platoon guarding the airfield fell back in good order to the pre-arranged rendezvous at Cockle Creek.

On the night 30 January Wilson embarked his men and by daylight Kalil Harbour had been reached without incident, he also learnt of the fall of Rabual. The next night the escape continued down the coast laying up hidden in accessible harbours, and escaping a Japanese destroyer lingering around during the day. That night being overcast Wilson decided to go for Woodlark Island with favourable wind and heavy following sea. The next day, 2 February, the ship was sighted by a Japanese aircraft and subsequently machine-gunned, causing little damage, and dive bombing the ship hitting amidships, causing casualties and more water to be pumped out by all available hands. By now Wilson considered all resistance was useless as more enemy planes appeared and he ordered the ship to heave to. By evening an enemy destroyer had came up, passed a line and officers and wounded were taken aboard the Japanese warship. One casualty died that night and was buried at sea with honours being paid by the enemy. The Australians were eventually towed to Rabaul and arrived into brutal captivity.

On 9 February 1942 the Japanese troops occupied town of Gasmata, New Britain Island. Several days later, on 18 February 1942, the Japanese troops also occupied town of Kieta on Bougainville Island.

Order of battle for Japanese Army and Navy

Rabaul, Kavieng and surrounding areas

Distant Cover
(lost 1/VF - 1/VT)
• 1st Carrier Division
aircraft carriers- Akagi, Kaga
• 5th Carrier Division
aircraft carriers- Shokaku, Zuikaku
• Battleship Division 3-2
battleships- Hiei, Kirishima
• 8th Cruiser Division
cruisers- Tone, Chikuma
• 17th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Isokaze, Urakaze, Hamakaze, Tanikaze
• 18th Destryoer Division
destroyers- Arare, Shiranuhi, Kagero, Kasumi - Akigumo

Screening Force
• 11th Seaplane Division
seaplane tender Chitose
• 6th Cruiser Division
cruisers- Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka, Kako

Invasion Force
• 18th Cruiser Division
cruisers- Tenryu, Tatsuta
• 19th Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- Tsugaru, Okinoshima, Tenyo Maru
cruiser Yubari
• 23rd Destroyer Division
destroyers- Uzuki, Yuzuki, Mikazuki
• 29th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Oite, Yunagi, Asanagi
• 30th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Matsuki, Yayoi, Mochizuki

40/AP  South Sea Detachment
• 5th Gunboat Division
gunboats- Keijo Maru, Nikkai Maru, Seikai Maru
• 14th Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- Hagoromo Maru, Noshiro #2 Maru, Tama Maru, Tama #2 Maru
• 56th Special Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- Kotobuki #5 Maru, Tama #8 Maru, Toshi #3 Maru
• 57th Special Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- Kunimitsu Maru, Shonan #15 Maru, Takunan #2 Maru

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Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright Graham Donaldson 1999-2000