Rabaul, Island of New Britain January 4, 1942

The Battle of Rabaul was fought from Janu­ary 23 to late Febru­ary 1942 on the island of New Britain, part of Aus­tra­lia’s League of Nations-man­dated Terri­tory of New Guinea (1921 to 1941) lying roughly 660 miles north­north­west of Aus­tra­lia. More forward obser­va­tion post than any­thing else, the 1,400‑strong garri­son had recently com­pleted work on forti­fying and defending Simp­son Harbor, Rabaul’s deep-water port, and two nearby air­fields. A 130‑man com­mando unit took up resi­dence on near­by New Ireland (see map below). The Austra­lians soon settled into rou­tine garri­son duties. Japa­nese mili­tary expan­sionists, how­ever, had their own plans for Rabaul, seeing it as a main staging base and stra­tegic spring­board for the planned con­quest of Port Moresby, terri­torial capi­tal of Austra­lia’s Papua man­date in south­east New Guinea; the sub­se­quent occu­pa­tion of New Cale­donia, New Hebri­des (Vanu­atu), Fiji, Samoa, and other South­west Pacific islands; and attacks along the north coast of Aus­tra­lia; for example, at Darwin Harbor in the Northern Territory.

Starting on this date, January 4, 1942, Rabaul came under strong aerial attack by Japa­nese land-based twin-engine bombers and four-engine flying boats based at Truk (Chuuk), site of a major Imperial Japa­nese Navy base in the Caro­line Islands 700 miles or so to the north of New Britain. Ten days later a Japanese inva­sion force at Truk began steaming toward Rabaul. The force was part of a naval task force that con­sisted of four air­craft carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, Shokaku, and Zuikaku—that had par­tici­pated in the devas­tating Decem­ber 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Also in the naval task force were 7 cruisers, 14 destroyers, several submarines, and numerous smaller vessels.

On January 20, 1942, some 109 Japanese war­planes attacked Rabaul’s wharves, shipping vessels, air­fields, and gun emplace­ments in mul­tiple waves. Anti­air­craft fire downed one enemy bomber and damaged many others, causing two to crash. As a result of these intense air attacks, Aus­tra­lian coastal artil­lery was destroyed and the Aus­tral­ian infan­try with­drew from the capi­tal. Two days later between 3,000 and 4,000 enemy troops invaded New Ire­land, and the day after that, before sun­rise on Janu­ary 23, an addi­tional 5,000 Japa­nese soldiers and 600 marines made an amphib­ious landing in Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor and captured the settle­ment in a matter of hours. By late February much of New Britain and New Ireland was firmly in the invaders’ hands, including 1,000 Aus­tra­lian sol­diers and 200 civil­ians. Of these pri­soners of war, about 160 were bayoneted or shot during the first week of Febru­ary 1942. Most of the remain­der lost their lives on July 1 when a Japa­nese prison trans­port vessel, the Monte­video Maru, steaming from Rabaul to the South Chinese island of Hainan, was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon.

Rabaul soon became the biggest Japanese base in New Guinea, criti­cal to their defenses in the region. Beginning in March 1942 and cont­inuing into 1943 the Japa­nese con­ducted oper­a­tions on the New Guinea main­land—at Lae and Salamaua, along the Kokoda Track leading to Port Moresby, and around Buna-Gona. By mid‑1943, how­ever, U.S. and Aus­tra­lian forces had turned back the tide of Japa­nese vic­to­ries. Rabaul itself was on the ropes after U.S. carrier-borne air­craft had twice inflicted heavy losses on air­strips and anchored war­ships in Simp­son Harbor in Novem­ber 1943. Allied amphib­i­ous landings the next month at Cape Glouces­ter (also known as Tuluvu) on the western tip of New Britain, part of Oper­a­tion Cart­wheel, gradually con­fined enemy forces to the Rabaul area. Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s Pacific island-hopping stra­tegy “neu­tral­ized” the huge Japa­nese garri­son and bases at Rabaul and other enemy strong­points as the Allies’ 1945 air and sea mining oper­a­tions against the Japa­nese Home Islands forced the enemy to agree to uncon­di­tional sur­render, which their leadership did in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

Rabaul and New Britain in Japan’s Grand Southern Offensive

 Map of eastern Papua New Guinea and New Britain

Above: Map depicting what is now Papua New Guinea and the large island of New Britain to the east, with Rabaul iden­ti­fied on New Britain’s north­eastern tip. The size of Taiwan, New Britain and the islands to its west, north, and east form the Bis­marck Archi­pel­ago in the South­west Pacific. Rabaul and other settle­ments on the islands suffered heavy damage when Allied troops recap­tured the area from the Japa­nese over a six-week period in 1944. The Bis­marck Archi­pel­ago was sub­se­quently made part of the U.N. Trust Terri­tory of New Guinea, admin­is­tered again by Aus­tra­lia. When Papua New Guinea attained inde­pen­dence in 1975, the archi­pel­ago group became part of that coun­try with its capi­tal at Port Moresby halfway down the tip of the Papuan Peninsula.

Battle of Rabaul: Japanese invasion of Rabaul, New Britain, January 1942Battle of Rabaul: Rabaul evacuees at Port Moresby, New Guinea 1942

Left: By the summer of 1941 the Japanese military high command had iden­ti­fied Rabaul as a speci­fic objec­tive of what they called their Southern Offen­sive. The reason for selecting Rabaul for con­quest hinged on Rabaul’s spec­tac­u­lar Simp­son Harbor, a flooded cal­dera that can shelter an entire fleet of war­ships. Addi­tion­ally, Rabaul was the per­fect loca­tion for con­trol­ling a large part of the South­west Pacific, known by the Japanese as the South­east Pacific. New Britain and neigh­boring New Ire­land, together with Eastern New Guinea, Guam, Bou­gain­ville, Guadal­canal in the Solo­mons, Fiji, and other South Pacific islands, plus strong­points on the Aus­tra­lian continent, would give the Japa­nese an outer defense barrier against an Allied counter­offen­sive. With this emi­nently favor­able stra­tegic situ­a­tion and con­trol of the region’s raw materials which they required, the Japa­nese felt they would be well posi­tioned to prose­cute the Pacific War to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion and to realize their supersize ambition to dominate the Far East.

Right: One hundred and fifty New Britain evacuees, mainly Rabaul garri­son person­nel and a few civil­ians such as govern­ment offi­cials, planters, and busi­ness­men, crowd the rails of HMAS Laura­bada at Port Moresby, capi­tal and largest settle­ment of the Austra­lian mandate of Papua on the eastern half of New Guinea (see map above). Fewer than 400 of the besieged Austra­lians made good their escape in two break­outs after evading the Japa­nese enemy for months and suffering from malaria, dengue fever, and starvation.

Victory at Sea’s “Rings Around Rabaul,” 1944. Japanese and American Footage from 1943–1944 Recounts Allied Encirclement

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