Jungle Island

New Britain 1944-45

Early in the war the island of New Britain, with its deep harbour at Rabaul, was identified as one of the most important areas in the Pacific. In January 1942 Japanese forces invaded and proceeded to develop Rabaul as a major anchorage and base. The Allies at first considered retaking Rabaul but then General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area, decided merely to isolate it and continue his advance westward. By late 1944, New Britain was of little or no consequence to the outcome of the war.

After the fall of Rabaul in January 1942, hundreds of Australian troops and some civilians fled along the coasts hoping to be rescued. About 400 got away, while about 1300 troops and civilians were captured or surrendered. Only a handful survived the war. More than 1000 men were killed when their transport ship, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk off the Philippines on 1 July 1942. Even after the fall of Rabaul the area saw some intense action. From 1942 until the war's end, Australian, American and later New Zealand aircrews flew many missions against Rabaul. It was the most heavily bombed target area in the south-west Pacific.

Although the decision was made to bypass Rabaul, the Allies required an airbase on the western tip of New Britain to support operations on the mainland of New Guinea. On 15 December 1943, the American 112th Cavalry Regiment made a landing at Aware, on the south-east tip of Cape Gloucester, followed on 26 December by a landing by the 1st Marine Division, United States Marine Corps on Cape Gloucester itself. Australian warships supported the landing with naval bombardment of shore positions. In addition, during the landing some Australian ground troops, including members of a RAAF radar station, landed with the Americans. They were subjected to numerous air raids but fortunately none of the radar men were killed or badly wounded.

The Americans were content to leave most of the island in Japanese hands. However during 1944 the Japanese began withdrawing some of their smaller garrisons positioned along the northern and southern coasts in response to guerrilla warfare breaking out. This occurred after officers and troops of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, mostly Australians and some New Guineans, were landed to encourage villagers to support the Allies and take up arms against the Japanese. In some areas tribal conflicts broke out because some villages supported the Japanese and others the Allies. The activities of the Allied Intelligence Bureau were highly successful because this fighting drove the Japanese further from some areas.

For most of 1944 the American bases at Arawe and Cape Gloucester were garrisoned by the 40th Infantry Division, United States Army. However, this division was wanted for operations elsewhere and arrangements were made to replace it with an Australian garrison. In November 1944, the 5th Australian Division began arriving. Rather than merely garrisoning the bases, however, the Australians were to go on the offensive with a drive towards Rabaul.

The Japanese base was now almost completely isolated. Only a few submarines ferrying staff officers and some supplies made it through the Allied naval blockade. However, the garrison was sufficiently large to be of concern to the Allies. About 100,000 Japanese naval and army troops were based at Rabaul and they could potentially mount a strong defence and major counter-attack. Were this to occur, many casualties would be suffered by both sides. A decision was made therefore to have the 5th Division push towards Rabaul only as far as the narrowest part of the Gazelle Peninsula, on which Rabaul was situated. Having reached that point, the Australians would form a cordon across the Gazelle Peninsula, hemming the enemy garrison into a small area of New Britain. The rest of the island would be firmly in Australian hands.

The 5th Division mounted a two-pronged advance. The first was along the north coast while the second started with an amphibious landing at Jacquinot Bay on the south coast. The advance started slowly because the commander of the First Australian Army, Lieutenant-General Vernon Sturdee, based at Lae on the mainland of New Guinea and overseeing operations on the mainland and New Britain, advised his commanders that information about the strength of the Japanese was uncertain. Senior American intelligence staff suggested the enemy's strength was fewer than 40,000, less than half the actual strength. Sturdee's orders were 'to obtain the required information, to maintain the offensive spirit in our troops, to harass the enemy and retain moral superiority over him'.

Amphibious landings along the coast increased the speed of the Australian advance. On both coasts, they were soon within striking range of the Gazelle Peninsula and so the Australians began advancing more cautiously. The troops were moving through some thickly jungle-clad areas and their training in jungle warfare made them acutely aware of the risks of ambushes and close fighting in this terrain. Some units, such as the 36th Battalion, had served in New Guinea before, however for many men who had come in as reinforcements or were in untested units this was their first campaign. They were well-trained and confident of success.

As the Australians neared the Gazelle Peninsula, clashes occurred on both fronts. The most resistance offered by the Japanese was in the Waitavalo-Tol area, on the south-eastern edge of the peninsula. During 1942 Japanese troops had massacred more than 150 Australian troops and civilians captured there and their remains were found strewn around the massacre site. After improving roadworks and bridges to improve access to the forward area, the Australians launched a series of attacks against the Japanese in this area. The Japanese resisted stoutly and the advance was slowed but never stopped.

By April 1945, the Australians had achieved their objective with a cordon established across the narrowest part of the Gazelle Peninsula. For the rest of the war, troops patrolled the cordon and further clashes with enemy forces occurred, though fortunately not often. It was, in many respects, a war of containment and the Australians were lucky that the Japanese commander, General Imamura, was content for his forces to remain contained rather than attempt to push the Australians away.

The relatively light fighting on New Britain was just as well. The Australian force was short of air support and problems with shipping meant it operated on slim margins of supply. As it was, the 5th Australian Division kept the Japanese isolated at Rabaul for the remainder of the war. The cost was about 75 men killed or died of other causes and 140 wounded.

After the war, the Australians cautiously moved into Rabaul. They found that the Japanese had been forced to resort to large-scale gardening and fishing projects to feed the large garrison. The base had been heavily bombed and many supply depots and other facilities destroyed or damaged. The Australians hoped to locate their comrades captured in 1942 but no trace was to be found. Instead they rescued several hundred civilian internees – mostly members of religious orders and Chinese residents of Rabaul – along with some, but not many, British, American, Chinese, Javanese, Indian, and one Australian, prisoners of war.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Jungle Island , DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/last-battles/jungle-island
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