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Bitapaka, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea 

A Sacrifice All But Forgotten - Australia’s First Battle - Rabaul 1914. The End of Germany’s Place in the Sun. Britain Seeks Australia’s Help

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Rabaul was one of the main coaling stations for ships of the German East Asiatic Squadron in the southern Pacific.  The squadron included the light cruisers Nurnberg and Dresden, cruiser Gneisenau and Admiral Von Spee’s flagship Scharnhost.  This squadron out gunned the available Australian warships (apart from H.M.A.S. Australia).  Together with the Pacific chain of German wireless stations, this naval force severely jeopardised the British Empire’s commerce, and the Europe bound troop and cargo ships from Australia and New Zealand.  As far as the British Empire was concerned the German colonies in Australia’s  sphere of influence had to be neutralised.

 

 

LEFT:  Imperial German army troops match along Bitapaka Road

Two days after Britain’s declaration of war on the 6th August, 1914, the Secretary of State for the Colonies despatched to the Governor-General of Australia a cipher telegram including “If your Ministers desire and feel hemselves able to seize German wireless stations…New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service.”

New Australian Force Formed To Deal With German Presence

With in weeks the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was formed.  The primary aim of the AN&MEF was to deprive the German Navy of bases from which it could harass the British Colonies, and to eliminate the wireless network the Germans had recently constructed across the Pacific.

The most powerful German wireless station in the pacific was at Bitapaka directly inland from Kabakaul located near Rabaul.  It was in contact with the German East Asiatic Squadron and Berlin.

 

LEFT:  Australian troops from the newly formed Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force train at Palm Island, north Queensland.

With the sighting of the Australian Naval Force the German seat of Government was moved from Rabaul to Toma and the military was withdrawn from Rabaul and Herbertshohe (now known as Kokopo) to avoid damage to civil infrastructure should hostilities commence.

Australian Troops Land In Rabaul

Just before dawn on the 11th September, 1914 an advance party of 25 Australian naval reservists under Lt. Bowen were landed at Kabakaul.  The rubble-breakwater at Kabakaul Wharf was originally built by the Germans early in 1914 to land the materials and equipment to build the Bitapaka Wireless Station.

The advance party made their way through jungle either side of the Bitapaka road.  Scouts fanned out and they pushed through the thick jungle whilst the main party advanced just off the road through thinner bush.

Contact

Two of the Australian scouts in the thick jungle surprised a German party of about two dozen soldiers (3 Germans and 21 nationals).  These were observing the advance of the main Australian party.  In an exchange of shots a German officer was severely wounded in the arm, the others scattered.  A few minutes later two more German officers were captured.  One of these officers was the Commanding Officer of the Bitapaka force who had advanced to gain first hand observations of what was happening.  The second officer was the commandant  of the herbertshohe (Kokopo) main force.  He and his troops had moved to Tokubar after the pre-planned withdrawal from Rabaul.  Her had heard that a small party of Australian troops had landed and was marching to Bitapaka.  He advanced with a small detachment across country to try and get between the Australians and the sea and attack them from the rear.  He found himself in front of the advancing Australians and whilst trying to observe them had been captured.

The capture of these three officers was an important factor, the German forces in the area had now lost their commanding officers, and they had been carrying more detailed maps of the area than the attacking Australian party had in their possession.  Furthermore, the Australians now knew that their advance would be contested.  They requested reinforcements immediately as the element of surprise had been foiled.

The Australian force continued and experienced increasing resistance.  Rife fire apparently coming from German snipers in trees, from the bush and from screened rifle pits at the side of the road.  It was later discovered that the approach road had been mined, but the Australian troops keeping to the bush, had avoided this particular hazard.

Australians Wounded and Mentioned in Dispatches

The Australians were unscathed until Able Seaman Williams was hit by shots coming from the bush and was mortally wounded in the stomach.  William’s was the first Australian shot in the First World War – this conflict preceded the ill fated landing at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915.

LEFT:  Medical Officer Pockley is front row second from left (as you are facing the screen)

Medical Officer Pockley, who had just completed amputating the shattered arm of the first German officer, heard about Williams and went to find him.  When he found Williams being carried back to Kabakaul he gave medical assistance to the wounded man. He also gave his red-cross armband to one of the two soldiers carrying Williams to ensure the soldier would not be fired upon by snipers.  Pockley then advanced closer to the fighting to see if he could give further medical assistance.  He was wounded by an aimed volley from a rifle pit located across the road.  Both he and Williams would later die of their wounds. 

Pockley’s act of giving up his red-cross armband, led him to being the first Australian in the First World War to be mentioned in dispatches for bravery. 

Bitapaka Wireless Station was captured at 1900 hours that evening. Six Australians belonging to the AN&MEF died that day.

Factors in the Operation’s Success

The lose of the three German officers early in the battle, the unexpected use of “bush-craft” by the Australians had both played a part in the operation’s success.  The fact that the New Guinea troops had been told to fire on armed men wearing khaki was also a factor, as after the first 25 Australians met resistance, a call for reinforcements was met by a contingent of naval ratings – wearing white!

Submarine Lost

A couple of days later the first Australian submarine, the AE1, disappeared with all hands somewhere between the Duke of York islands and Rabaul.  This was the first submarine loss of the World War One.  The AE1 was possibly lost to accident, or to an armed German cutter, mystery still surrounds the tragedy, the wreck and it’s crew have never been found.

German Fleets Scarpers (bugs out)

With their southern coaling stations and radio communications network captured, the German East Asiatic Squadron, made a run for Europe via South America.  On 1st November the fleet were intercepted off the Chilean port of Coronel by a British naval squadron where, having a large advantage in firepower, the encounter ended with a resounding victory for the Germans.  The British Admiralty reacted swiftly, dispatching a powerful naval force to the South Atlantic to confront the German Squadron, and on 9th December battle commenced some 120 miles south west of the Falkland Islands.  Outnumbered, out-gunned and outpaced by the British force, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was over by nightfall.  Admiral Von Spee and the entire compliment of his flagship Scharnhorst perished in the icey waters, and with Leipzig, Nurnberg and Gneisenau also sunk, the East Asiatic Squadron was routed.  Only the Dresden escaped and when she was scuttled in Chilean waters four months later, the German East Asiatic Squadron ceased to exist.

The primary aim of the 1st battalion, Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) had been accomplished.  Six months before Gallipoli, Australia had lost seven men and five wounded in taking Bitapaka Wireless Station, and all hands aboard the AE1 submarine, the first military losses of a newly independent nation.  One German and thirty Melanesians had died in the effort to defend it.  

The New Guinea administration has passed out of German hands forever, only to be briefly administered during the Second World War by the Imperial Japanese Navy at Rabaul, before changing back to Australian hands in 1945.

Bitabaka Today – Allied War Cemetery

Today, on the original location of the German wireless station stands the Allied war cemetery maintained by the Australian War Graves Commission.  The area is very peaceful and relaxing with large rainforest trees (called rain trees) and neatly cut grass.  Dotting the grassed area are hundreds of brass plates, each marking the final resting place of a serviceman who fell during the Rabaul conflict from a number of services and nations; army, naval, police and air force from Australia, India, New Zealand, Netherlands, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua Nui Guinea.  Many personnel were listed as missing or killed in action and several plates had final departing messages from loved ones. 

ABOVE:  Closely cut lawn and immaculate gardens mask the activities that took place here in 1914. 

The Australian Government selected Bitapaka for the location for the Allied War Cemetery.  Each brass plaque marks the final resting place of an allied serviceman killed or lost in action in East New Britain. 

Bitabaka is predominantly a cemetery for World War Two service personnel who fell during the Rabaul conflict, however, the cemetery also is the final resting place for Australian personnel “who paid the ultimate price” during the First World War when the area was grappled from the hands of German occupiers in 1914.  The sinking of Australia’s first submarine during the First World War is also commemorated at Bitabaka.

The official visitors book records the comments of visitors.  One comment from a fifteen year old Australian girl just says “thanks”.  

BELOW:  Each brass plate provided details of serviceman lost including service, rank, name and age.  A short epitaph may also be on the plaque if the next of kin wished. There are over 1000 plates in the gardens.

 

 

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