Capture of German outposts in the Pacific 1914

 

At the outbreak of World War I, Germany controlled some territories in the south-west Pacific. The British Government tasked Australia to take over the German territories in New Guinea and New Zealand to take over German Samoa. Germany surrendered Samoa without resistance to New Zealand forces on 29 August 1914. New Guinea fell after a small fight between the Australians and a mixed force of German and local troops at the Battle of Bitapaka on 11 September 1914. Britain's ally, Japan, occupied the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall islands. The captured German territories stayed under the military administration of Australia, New Zealand and Japan throughout the war.

Australia's first actions in World War I

Before the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) sailed for Egypt in December 1914, Australian forces assisted the British Empire in efforts closer to home. The actions were brief and relatively bloodless compared with later engagements.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had a permanent force of about 3800 sailors (about 850 were on loan from the British Royal Navy). Australia's part-time Royal Australian Naval Reserves (RANR) provided another 1646 men. At the time, the RAN fleet mainly comprised:

  • HMAS Australia (battlecruiser)
  • HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney and Encounter (light cruisers)
  • HMAS Pioneer (small cruiser)
  • HMA Ships Parramatta, Yarra and Warrego (destroyers)
  • HMA Submarines AE1 and AE2

At the outbreak of war, Germany controlled some territories in the south-west Pacific. German outposts included:

  • Bismarck Archipelago
  • Bougainville
  • New Guinea
  • Mariana, Caroline and Marshall islands of Micronesia
  • Nauru
  • Samoa (western half)
  • Solomon Islands (northern half)

These islands had limited economic importance but high strategic importance. Wireless communications at each location enabled contact with Germany and its Pacific fleet.

The British War Office needed to prevent the German Imperial Navy's East Asiatic Squadron from using regional German facilities. A network of Pacific island territories was providing intelligence, communications and logistical support to the German squadron based at Tsingtao in China.

The British Government tasked:

  • Australia to take over the German territories in New Guinea
  • New Zealand to take over German Samoa

British Admiral Sir George Patey, on loan from the Royal Navy, was the first Commander of His Majesty's Australian Fleet. Patey led the RAN in three early operations:

  • New Zealand's capture of Samoa in August 1914
  • Australia's capture of Nauru in September 1914
  • Australia's capture of New Guinea in September 1914

Capture of German Samoa and Nauru

Admiral Patey was involved in Australia's first coalition operation in company with:

  • HMAS Melbourne
  • HM Ships Philomel, Psyche and Pyramus
  • French cruiser Montcalm

Patey's task was to escort a force of 1400 New Zealand troops to occupy the German Protectorate of Samoa. The convoy arrived on 29 August 1914 and landed troops at Apia. The Germans and local militia surrendered without a fight.

Colonel Robert Logan, commander of New Zealand's Samoa Force, raised the Union Jack at a ceremony in Apia on 30 August 1914. Logan administered the territory for the New Zealand Government until 1919.

HMAS Melbourne left the Samoa convoy and steamed to the German territory of Nauru. On 9 September 1914, a landing party from Melbourne destroyed wireless equipment at Nauru and arrested the German administrator.

Capture and occupation of German New Guinea

As the first Australian unit committed to action in World War I, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) captured and occupied New Guinea. The volunteer force comprised:

  • 1st Infantry Battalion with eight companies of infantry and ancillary soldiers — fresh recruits from New South Wales
  • Naval Brigade with six companies of the naval reserves — 500 naval reservists and time-expired Royal Navy seamen from New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, under Commander Joseph Beresford

Only 14 days after Britain declared war on Germany, a contingent of the AN&MEF marched through the streets of Sydney to Circular Quay. They boarded HMAT Berrima, a troopship recently chartered by the Australian Government.

1st Battalion AN&MEF on the ferry Kulgoa heading for HMAT Berrima docked at Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, 18 August 1914. AWM H19497

On 19 August 1914, the troops embarked for Palm Island, near Townsville. At the time, most of the RAN fleet was away helping the New Zealanders to capture German Samoa.

HMAT Berrima steamed to Brisbane, stopped briefly at Moreton Bay and then met HMAS Sydney off Sandy Cape on 22 August. The two ships docked at Palm Island on 24 August, where the troops began training for military operations.

HMAS Sydney handed over its escort responsibility to HMAS Encounter, continued to Townsville to collect provisions, and then returned to Palm Island to resume escort duties.

Patey issued strict orders that the expedition was not to proceed north of Palm Island without a strong naval escort. The troops continued with training on Palm Island while waiting for the rest of the force to arrive.

On 7 September 1914, a convoy sailed to meet Patey's flagship, HMAS Australia, at Rossel Island, about 800km south of New Guinea. The convoy included:

  • HMA Ships Sydney, Encounter, Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra
  • HMA Submarines AE1 and AE2
  • Berrima (troopship), Aorangi (supply ship), Murex (oiler) and Koolonga (collier)

Intelligence reports indicated the Germans were operating two wireless stations in the area, at Bitapaka inland from Kabakaul and at Herbertshöhe (now Kokopo). At Rossel Island, Patey met with Colonel Holmes, Captain Glossop, Commander Stevenson and Commander Cumberlege to prepare plans for the attack.

Naval operations at New Guinea went according to plan.

The RAN destroyers entered Blanche Bay on 11 September while HMAS Sydney guarded the entrance. The commanders planned for the possibility that the German squadron was lying in wait, but there was no sign of the enemy. HMAS Parramatta reported that the jetty at Rabaul was suitable for berthing HMAT Berrima.

The initial landings in Australia's first joint force operation took place at dawn on 11 September. An advance party of petty officers and men under the command of Lieutenant Rowland Bowen landed at Kabakaul. Their mission was to seize the wireless station at Bitapaka. Later in the day, reinforcements were landed at Herbertshöhe.

Bowen's scouting party moved through dense jungle to secure its objective. The men soon found themselves in the rear of the German's first line of defence. Petty Officer George Palmer shot and wounded Sergeant-Major Mauderer, the German officer in charge of the outpost.

A skirmish followed, and the enemy surrendered.

A dirt road with thick vegetation and trees on the each side of the road
A view of the Bitapaka road where members of the AN&MEF fought the Germans, September 1914. AWM J03085

Captain Brian Pockley, who worked at the Sydney Hospital before volunteering, administered first aid to Mauderer. Then Bowen directed Mauderer to announce in German that 800 troops had landed and that his comrades should surrender.

Bowen’s lie was rewarded. The German commander Carl von Klewitz thought they were outnumbered. He ordered his forces to withdraw inland, and the German coastal defences crumbled. Only the defenders at Bitapaka remained to offer resistance.

The first Australian to fall was Able Seaman William Williams. Williams was part of the communications link between Bowen's scouting party and the troops on the beach.

Pockley had just finished treating Mauderer when he learned that Williams had been shot. He and Officer's Steward Alan Annear set off to find the injured sailor, Williams.

When the two men found Williams, Pockley instructed Leading Stoker William Kember and another man to evacuate Williams to the rear.

Pockley then came under fire. He was shot and seriously wounded. Sometime later, Pockley was evacuated and transferred to HMAT Berrima. Both Pockley and Williams died on board Berrima later that afternoon.

Meanwhile, Bowen and Lieutenant-Commander Gerald Hill agreed on the next phase of the operation. They led the men to try and outflank the enemy.

As they advanced, Bowen was seriously wounded by a sniper. Other casualties included:

  • Able Seaman John Courtney (shot dead), also known as John Edward Walker
  • Signalman Robert Moffatt (died of wounds the next day)
  • Able Seaman Daniel Sellers Skillen (wounded)
  • Lieutenant-Commander Charles Elwell (shot and killed with sword in hand while leading a charge)

At this point, the overwhelmed defenders reluctantly agreed to the unconditional surrender of both the German forces and the wireless station.

During their advance to the wireless station, the Australians encountered a series of enemy trenches. The men successfully used the German-speaking captives to negotiate the surrender of German troops in two trenches. The troops met resistance at the third trench, which was at the top of a steep cutting beside the road. A German captive, Ritter, tried to rally the other Germans who had surrendered. In a brisk exchange of fire, the Australian casualties were:

  • Able Seaman James Tonks (wounded), who later joined the AIF
  • Able Seaman Timothy Sullivan (wounded)
  • Able Seaman Henry Street (died of wounds), also known as 'Harry Malley'

Ritter and several of the local troops fighting for the Germans died in the exchange.

News of the successful capture of the wireless station did not reach Admiral Patey until 1:00am on 12 September. The AN&MEF raised the Union Jack at Rabaul in a ceremony at 3:00pm on 13 September.

Within a few weeks, most of the German territories in the area had been occupied without further opposition, including Bougainville and the Admiralty Islands. The cost of the operations to the British Empire forces was six dead and four wounded.

Success was marred by the mysterious loss of HMA Submarine AE1 on 14 September — the first RAN unit lost in wartime. The wreck of AE1 was located over 100 years later in December 2017. It was found in 300m of water off the Duke of York Islands.

With Germany's outposts in the Pacific secured, Australia's attention turned to the war raging in Europe.

Soldiers an locals sitting on joists of a open deck structure
Members of the AN&MEF landing party waiting to re-embark after the fight against the Germans on the Bitapaka road, with Commander Cumberledge RN in the foreground, September 1914. AWM J03323

Veteran brothers of the naval operation

The Italian-Irish Corigliano family of South Australia had 15 children. When World War I began, two sons were already serving members of the RAN. Another two sons joined the AIF in September 1914.

Sailors in the RAN

First-born child, John 'Jack' Corigliano, joined the navy when he was 18 years old and served as an Able Seaman in China during the Boxer Rebellion. By August 1914, he had been specially trained in England, promoted to Warrant Mechanician and was serving back in Australia on board the battlecruiser HMAS Australia. One of 800 crew, Jack worked below deck in the hot and noisy engine and boiler rooms.

HMAS Australia was the flagship for Australia's early operations in the Pacific. Jack was part of the crew that served in German Samoa and New Guinea. Then he participated in Australia's operations with the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea.

Jack served again in World War II and retired from the navy as a Lieutenant Commander.

Mechanician Jack Corigliano c. 1911–13. By the time he retired, Jack had given almost 37 years of his life to naval service. AWM P10690.002

Read the full story of veteran Jack Corigliano in Ancestry: Stories of Multicultural Anzacs.

Younger brother, Charles Corigliano, enlisted in the navy in 1911, when he was 20 years old. He joined the crew of HMAS Sydney as a stoker. Charles worked below deck, shovelling coal into the ship's furnaces to keep the huge steam engines running.

With HMAS Sydney's crew, Charles served in naval operations against German Samoa and New Guinea. He was also part of the naval escort for the first convoy of troops to Egypt.

On the way to Alexandria, Charles's ship was ordered to investigate a warning signal received from Direction Island. Within hours, HMAS Sydney had sunk the German light cruiser, SMS Emden. News of the ship's sinking was celebrated by Australians.

Charles retired from service in 1919.

Two more brothers who served

In September 1915, the AIF recruited two volunteers from the Corigliano family of Beachport, South Australia.

Private Maurice Corigliano of the 32nd Infantry Battalion served in Egypt and France. Less than a month after arriving at Marseilles, Maurice was killed in action at Fleurbaix, near Fromelles, on 20 July 1916.

Maurice's battalion took part in the Battle of Fromelles from 19 to 20 July 1916. The planned attack on the Fromelles ridge failed. The Australian and British soldiers had to run across swampy open fields. They faced heavy machine-gun and artillery fire from the Germans. In its first major action on the Western Front, the AIF suffered over 5500 casualties, including 2000 dead and 400 taken as prisoners of war.

Portrait of Private Maurice Corigliano, 32nd Battalion. AWM P08039.001

Driver Peter Corigliano of the 2nd Field Artillery Battalion served in Egypt, France and Belgium until the end of the war. He was repatriated to Australia in 1919.


Last updated: 10 February 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Capture of German outposts in the Pacific 1914, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/captured-german-outposts
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