Battle of Rabaul (1942)

Battle of Rabaul (1942)
Battle of Rabaul
Part of World War II, Pacific War
Awm P02395.012.jpg
Late January 1942. Australian soldiers (right centre) retreating from Rabaul cross the Warangoi/Adler River in the Bainings Mountains, on the eastern side of Gazelle Peninsula. Photographer: Sgt L. I. H. (Les) Robbins.
Date 23 January – February 1942
Location Rabaul, New Britain
Territory of New Guinea
Result Japanese victory
 Australia Japan Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
Australia John Scanlan Japan Shigeyoshi Inoue
Japan Tomitaro Horii
1,400 soldiers 5,000 soldiers
2 aircraft carriers (Kaga, Akagi)
Casualties and losses
Unknown number killed in action, at least 130 massacred after the battle[1] 16 officially killed in action[2]

The Battle of Rabaul, also known by the Japanese as Operation R, was fought on the island of New Britain in the Australian Territory of New Guinea, in January and February 1942. It was a strategically significant defeat of Allied forces by Japan in the Pacific campaign of World War II. Following the capture of the port of Rabaul, Japanese forces turned it into a major base and proceeded to land on mainland New Guinea, advancing toward Port Moresby and Australia. Hostilities on the neighbouring island of New Ireland are also usually considered to be part of the same battle. Rabaul was important because of its proximity to the Japanese territory of the Caroline Islands, site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk.



The 1,400-strong Australian Army garrison in New Britain—known as Lark Force—was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Scanlan. It included 716 frontline Australian Imperial Force (AIF) soldiers in the shape of the 2/22nd Battalion, deployed from March 1941 as fears of war with Japan increased. The force also included personnel from a local militia unit, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, a coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance. (The 2/22nd Battalion Band—which was also included in Lark Force—is perhaps the only military unit ever to have been entirely recruited from the ranks of the Salvation Army.) A commando unit, the 130-strong 2/1st Independent Company, was detached to garrison the nearby island of New Ireland.

The main tasks of the garrison were protection of Vunakanau, the main Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield near Rabaul, and the nearby flying boat anchorage in Simpson Harbour, which were important for the surveillance of Japanese movements in the region. However, the RAAF contingent, under Squadron Leader (some sources say Wing Commander) John Lerew, had little offensive capability, with 10 lightly armed CAC Wirraway training aircraft and four Lockheed Hudson light bombers from No. 24 Squadron.

The Imperial Japanese Army assault formation—the South Seas Force, under Major General Tomitaro Horii—was essentially a brigade group based on the 55th Division.[2] Its main combat units were the 144th Infantry Regiment (headquarters unit, three infantry battalions, an artillery company, signals unit, and munitions squad), a few platoons from the 55th Cavalry Regiment, a battalion from the 55th Mountain Artillery Regiment and a company from the 55th Engineer Regiment.


In January 1942, Rabaul came under attack by large numbers of Japanese carrier-based aircraft. After the odds facing the Australians mounted significantly, Lerew signalled RAAF HQ in Melbourne with the Latin motto "Nos Morituri Te Salutamus" ("we who are about to die salute you"), the phrase uttered by gladiators in ancient Rome before entering combat. On 21 January, eight Wirraways attacked a formation of 109 Japanese aircraft;[3] three RAAF planes were shot down, two crash-landed, and another was damaged. One of the attacking Japanese bombers was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. As a result of the intense air attacks, Australian coastal artillery was destroyed and Australian infantry were withdrawn from Rabaul itself. An RAAF flying boat crew located the invasion fleet and signalled a warning before their aircraft was also shot down.

On 22 January, the Japanese landed just off New Ireland and had to wade ashore in deep water filled with dangerous mudpools. The 2/1st Independent Company had been dispersed around the island and the Japanese took the main town of Kavieng without opposition. That night, the invasion fleet approached Rabaul.

At 02:45 on 23 January, the South Seas Force began to land on New Britain. The 3rd Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment encountered stiff resistance from a mixed company-sized force of AIF and militiamen at Vulcan Beach. However, because of its numerical superiority, most of the South Seas Force was able to land unopposed in unguarded locations. Within hours, Scanlan ordered "every man for himself", and Australian soldiers and civilians split into small groups and retreated through the jungle.

Only the RAAF had made evacuation plans; its personnel were removed by flying boat. Australian soldiers remained at large in the interior of New Britain for many weeks, but Lark Force had made no preparations for guerrilla warfare on New Britain. Without supplies, their health and military effectiveness declined. Leaflets posted by Japanese patrols or dropped from planes stated in English, "you can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender." Most Australian soldiers were captured or surrendered during the following weeks.


From mainland New Guinea, some civilians and individual officers organised unofficial rescue missions to New Britain, and between March and May about 450 troops and civilians were evacuated by sea. Rabaul became the biggest Japanese base in New Guinea. The Australians tried to restrict its development soon after its capture by a bombing counter attack in March. A handful of Lark Force members remained at large on New Britain and often in conjunction with the local islanders conducted guerrilla operations against the Japanese.

At least 800 soldiers and civilian prisoners of war—most of them Australian—lost their lives on 1 July 1942, when the ship on which they were sent from Rabaul to Japan—the Montevideo Maru—was sunk off the north coast of Luzon by the U.S. submarine USS Sturgeon.

Of the approximately 1,050 Australians taken prisoner, at least 130 personnel were massacred on or about 4 February 1942.[4] Six men survived these killings and later described what happened. The Australian government concluded that personnel were marched into the jungle near Tol Plantation in small groups and were bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. At the nearby Waitavalo Plantation, 35 Australians prisoners were shot. The officer with the main responsibility for these war crimes was Colonel Masao Kusunose, who later committed suicide.

On New Ireland, the 2/1st Independent Company became victims of a policy which scattered them in small groups around the island to such an extent that their ability to wage any kind of co-ordinated raiding or guerrilla campaign became impossible. The Australian commandos, along with some civilians who fought, in most cases were quickly overcome and killed or taken prisoner. Japanese forces also committed atrocities against POWs on New Ireland.

In December 1943, during the Battle of Cape Gloucester, U.S. Marines landed in western New Britain and consequent Allied operations on New Britain gradually restricted the Japanese force to Rabaul. However, a large number of Japanese personnel remained in Rabaul until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.



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