New Britain campaign
|New Britain campaign|
|Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II|
New Britain. Rabaul is at the north-east extremity of the island.
|Commanders and leaders|
| J. W. Cunningham
William H. Rupertus
|< 20,000||> 100,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|~30,000 dead, mostly from disease and starvation|
The New Britain campaign was a World War II campaign by the Allies, between December 1943 and the end of the war in August 1945, to contain Japanese forces concentrated in Rabaul, the capital of New Britain, the major Japanese base for the New Guinea and Solomons campaigns. Initial fighting took place around the western end of the island, with US forces securing bases around Arawe and Cape Glouscester in December 1943. This was followed by a further landing in March 1944 around Talasea. In October 1944, Australian forces took over from the US troops and undertook a Landing at Jacquinot Bay the following month, before beginning a limited offensive to secure a defensive line across the island between Wide Bay and Open Bay behind which they contained the numerically superior Japanese forces for the remainder of the war.
New Britain is a crescent-shaped island north east of the mainland of New Guinea. It is approximately 595 kilometres (370 mi) long, and its width varies from around 30 kilometres (19 mi) to 100 kilometres (62 mi): this makes it the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago. The interior of New Britain is mountainous, with a range of volcanic mountains over 1,800 metres (5,900 ft) high running for most of its length. The island's coast is indented by large number of bays.
The island has a tropical climate. At the time of World War II the mountains were covered by a rainforest of tall trees. The coastal plains which ring most of the island were covered in dense jungle. Most of the beaches on New Britain were backed by forrested swamps, and a large number of rivers and streams ran from the mountains to the sea. All of these characteristics greatly complicated the movement of military units on New Britain. The number of sites suitable for amphibious landings was also constrained by the coral reefs which lay off most of the island's coastline.
The island's population in 1940 was estimated as over 101,000 New Guineans and 4,674 Europeans and Asians. Rabaul, located on the north-east coast of New Britain, was the main settlement on the island and the largest in the Bismarcks. The town had served as the capital of the Australian-administered Territory of New Guinea since Australian forces had captured the region from Germany during 1914.
Japanese forces captured New Britain in January 1942 as part of efforts to secure Rabaul, quickly overwhelming the small Australian garrison during the Battle of Rabaul. This invasion was undertaken to both prevent Allied forces from using Rabaul to attack the important Japanese base at Truk in the central Pacific, and to capture the town so that it could be used to support potential further Japanese offensives in the region. While hundreds of Australian soldiers and airmen managed to escape and were evacuated between February and May, around 900 became prisoners of war and were treated harshly. The 500 European-ethnic civilians captured by the Japanese were interred. On 1 July 1942, 849 POWs and 208 civilian men who had been captured on New Britain were killed when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine en-route to Japan. Most of the remaining European-ethnic internees were transported to the Solomon Islands where they died due to poor conditions.
The Japanese authorities adopted the Australian system of administering the island through village chiefs, and many villages shifted their loyalties to the Japanese in order to survive or to gain an advantage against other groups. The few chiefs who refused to cooperate with the Japanese were severely punished, with several being killed. While the European-ethnic women and children had been evacuated to Australia prior to the war, Asian-ethnic people had not been assisted to leave. The Chinese-ethnic community feared that it would be massacred by Japanese forces, as had happened elsewhere in the Pacific, but this did not occur. However, men were forced to work as labourers and some women were raped and, in several cases forced to become "comfort women".
Following the invasion, the Japanese established a major base at Rabaul. The facilities located near the town were frequently attacked by Allied air units from early 1942, but these early operations were generally unsuccessful. Few other Japanese facilities were constructed on New Britain, though a forward airfield was developed at Gasmata on the island's south coast. Both the Japanese and Australians maintained small parties of coastwatchers at other locations on New Britain; the Australians were civilians who had volunteered to remain on the island following the invasion. During 1943 small parties of Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) personnel, which comprised both Australian and New Guinean troops, were landed on New Britain. The AIB units sought to gather intelligence, re-assert Australian sovereignty and rescue downed Allied airmen. The Japanese attempted to hunt down the Allied coastwatchers and AIB patrols, and committed atrocities against civilians who assisted them. The AIB also trained and equipped New Guineans to serve as guerrillas, which lead to a successful low-intensity campaign against the Japanese garrison. However, it also sparked tribal warfare with the guerrillas attacking villages they believed to have collaborated with the Japanese.
By 1943, there were more than 100,000 Japanese military and civilian personnel on New Britain and a smaller nearby island, New Ireland. These were centred on the headquarters of the Eighth Area Army: the 17th Division (11,429 personnel at the end of the war); the 38th Division (13,108); the 39th Brigade (5,073); the 65th Brigade (2,729); the 14th Regiment (2,444); the 34th Regiment (1,879) and the 35th Regiment (1,967). By the end of the war, these Japanese forces were restricted to Rabaul and the surrounding Gazelle Peninsula.
United States, Australian and New Guinean forces, assisted by local civilians, were always a division-level command or smaller: the U.S. "Director" Task Force which secured Arawe (effectively a regimental combat team) and the 1st Marine Division handed over to the 40th Infantry Division, which in turn handed over to the Australian 5th Division.
The initial landings at Arawe and Cape Gloucester were part of Operation Cartwheel. The main objective of the overall operation was the isolation of Rabaul. Part of this plan called for the Allies to secure beachheads at the western end of New Britain, within which air bases could be constructed. A further landing was undertaken at Talasea, on the Willaumez Peninsula, in March 1944 as Japanese forces began withdrawing towards the east. In April 1944, once Arawe and Cape Gloucester had been secured, the US 40th Infantry Division arrived to relieve the marines and cavalrymen that had landed in December 1943. After this, a period of relative inactivity followed as the US and Japanese forces occupied opposite ends of the island, while guerilla actions were fought in the center by Australian-led forces of the Allied Intelligence Bureau.
In October 1944, the decision was made to transfer the US 40th Infantry Division to fight in the Philippines, with responsibility for New Britain passing to the Australian 5th Division, commanded by Major General Alan Ramsay. Upon arrival, Ramsay's force was ordered to carry out a containment operation designed to isolate the Japanese garrison on the Gazelle Peninsula. Regardless, a limited offensive was undertaken by the Australians who carried out a Landing at Jacquinot Bay in November 1944, before advancing along the northern and southern coasts towards the Gazelle Peninsula to capture a line between Wide Bay and Open Bay, along which to contain the larger Japanese force, which remained largely static around the Rabaul fortress, with only about 1,600 troops deployed in the forward areas. This saw a series of amphibious landings, river crossings and small-scale actions. In the final phase of the advance, the Australians secured the Waitavalo–Tol area, which was held by a Japanese force around battalion strength. During this phase, the most notable fighting took place around Mount Sugi.The position was heavily defended with mortars, machine guns and pillboxes, and heavy rain also frustrated Australian attempts to reduce the Japanese stronghold. Following its capture in March–April, the Australian campaign evolved into a series of patrols aimed at maintaining the line. This lasted until the end of the war in August 1945.
Rabaul was secured by the Allies on 6 September 1945, at which time over 8,000 former prisoners of war were liberated from Japanese camps on the island. Australian losses during the fighting on New Britain between October 1944 and the end of the war were limited, amounting to 53 killed and 140 wounded. A further 21 died from non-battle injuries or illnesses. Total Japanese losses throughout the entire campaign are estimated at around 30,000 dead, mostly from disease and starvation.
In summarising the campaign, Gavin Long, the Australian official historian, wrote that it was inadequately resourced particularly in terms of air and sea power, with the latter delaying the concentration of the 5th Division until very late in the campaign. Regardless, Long writes that the Australian force, which was relatively inexperienced and matched against a Japanese force of around five divisions, achieved a remarkable result in the circumstances. Lachlan Grant also reaches a similar conclusion, highlighting the limited casualties that were sustained in the campaign in comparison to those in other locations such as Aitape–Wewak. In this regard, the defensive tactics of the Japanese commander, Imamura, were likely a factor in ensuring the successful containment of his force. According to Japanese historian Kengoro Tanaka, Imamura had been under orders to preserve his strength until mutual action could be achieved with the Imperial Japanese Navy and had as such, chosen to deploy only a small portion of his troops forward of the fortress of Rabaul.
U.S. Marines in the jungle at Cape Gloucester
- Australian War Memorial. "Australia-Japan Research Project: Dispositions and deaths". Citing figures of the Relief Bureau of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, March 1964. 30,500 Japanese troops are listed as dying in the Bismarck Archipelago.
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- Tanaka 1980, p. 127.
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