New Britain campaign

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New Britain campaign
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
New Britain WW2 map.jpg
New Britain. Rabaul is at the north-east extremity of the island.
Date December 15, 1943 – August 21, 1945
Location New Britain, Territory of New Guinea
Result Allied victory

 United States

 New Zealand
Commanders and leaders
United States J. W. Cunningham
United States William H. Rupertus
United States Rapp Brush
Australia A.H. Ramsay
Australia H.C.H. Robertson
Empire of Japan Hitoshi Imamura
< 20,000 > 100,000
Casualties and losses
~30,000 dead, mostly from disease and starvation[1]

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.[2] The island's coast is indented by large number of bays.[3]

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.[3]

The island's population in 1940 was estimated as over 101,000 New Guineans and 4,674 Europeans and Asians.[4] Rabaul, located on the north-east coast of New Britain, was the main settlement on the island and the largest in the Bismarcks.[3] 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.[5]

Japanese occupation[edit]

Japanese forces captured New Britain in January 1942 as part of efforts to secure Rabaul,[6] quickly overwhelming the small Australian garrison during the Battle of Rabaul.[7] 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.[8] 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.[5] 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.[5] Most of the remaining European-ethnic internees were transported to the Solomon Islands where they died due to poor conditions.[9]

Colour map of New Britain and nearby islands marked with the location and strength of the Japanese forces stationed on them
The disposition of Japanese forces on New Britain and nearby islands in November 1943

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.[5] 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".[5]

Following the invasion, the Japanese established a large base at Rabaul. The facilities located near the town were attacked by Allied air units from early 1942, but these operations were generally unsuccessful. By mid-1943 a network of four airfields had been constructed at Rabaul which could accommodate 265 fighters and 166 bombers in protective revetments. Further aircraft could also be accommodated in unprotected parking areas.[10] Aircraft based at these facilities operated against Allied forces in New Guinea and Solomon Islands.[11] The town was also developed into a major port, with extensive dock and ship repair facilities. Large stockpiles of supplies were stored in warehouses and open air dumps in and around Rabaul.[12] 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.[9]

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.[9]

Opposing forces[edit]

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, under the command of General Hitoshi Imamura: 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). Together, these formations amounted to a force equivalent to four divisions, while naval troops provided the equivalent of another division.[13] By the end of the war, these Japanese forces were restricted to Rabaul and the surrounding Gazelle Peninsula.[6]

In contrast, 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 was effectively a regimental combat team based on the 112th Cavalry Regiment.[14] It was later followed by the 1st Marine Division before it handed over to the 40th Infantry Division, which in turn handed over to the Australian 5th Division.[6]

Preliminary operations[edit]

Colour map of the New Guinea, Bismark Islands, Solomon Islands and Central Pacific area marked with the main movements of Allied and Japanese forces between June 1943 and April 1944 as described in the article
Allied and Japanese operations associated with Operation Cartwheel between June 1943 and April 1944

From mid-1942 Allied plans for the Pacific had a strong focus on capturing or neutralising Rabaul. In July 1942 the US Military's Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a two-pronged offensive against Rabaul. The forces assigned to the South Pacific Area were directed to capture the Solomon Islands, starting with Guadalcanal. Simultaneously, the units assigned to the South West Pacific Area, which was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, were to secure Lae and Salamaua on the north coast of New Guinea. Once these operations were complete, forces from both commands would land on New Britain and capture Rabaul. This plan proved premature, however, as MacArthur lacked the forces needed to execute his elements of it. The Japanese offensive towards Port Moresby, which was defeated after months of heavy fighting in the Kokoda Track campaign, Battle of Milne Bay and Battle of Buna–Gona, also disrupted the Allied plans but left them in control of the territory needed to mount their own offensives.[15]

The Allies re-cast their plans in early 1943. Following a major conference, on 28 March the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a new plan for reducing Rabaul, which was designated Operation Cartwheel. Under this plan, MacArthur's forces were to establish airfields on two islands off the coast of New Guinea, capture the Huon Peninsula region of the mainland and land in western New Britain. The South Pacific Area was to continue its advance through the Solomon Islands towards Rabaul, culminating with a landing on Bougainville Island.[15] While the initial plans for Operation Cartwheel directed MacArthur to capture Rabaul, in June 1943 the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that this would be was unnecessary as the Japanese base there could be neutralized by blockade and aerial bombardment. MacArthur initially opposed this change in plans, but it was endorsed by the British and United States Combined Chiefs of Staff during the Quebec Conference in August.[16]

The United States Fifth Air Force, the main American air unit assigned to the South West Pacific Area, began a campaign against Rabaul in October 1943. The goal of the attacks was to prevent the Japanese from using Rabaul as an air or naval base and provide support for the planned landing on Bougainville scheduled for 1 November as well as landings in western New Britain planned for December.[17] The first raid took place on 12 October, and involved 349 aircraft. Further attacks were made whenever weather conditions were suitable during October and early November.[18] On 5 November, two United States Navy aircraft carriers also attacked the town and its harbour. Following this attack the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased using Rabaul as a fleet base.[19] The campaign against Rabaul was intensified from November when air units operating from airfields on recently-captured islands in the Solomons joined the attacks.[20]

Invasion of western New Britain[edit]

Opposing plans[edit]

On 22 September 1943 MacArthur's General Headquarters issued orders for the invasion of New Britain, which was designated Operation Dexterity. These directed the US Sixth Army (which at the time was typically designated 'Alamo Force') to land forces in Cape Gloucester region of western New Britain and Gasmata in order to secure all of New Britain west of the line between Gasmata and Talasea on the north coast.[20] MacArthur's air commander, Lieutenant General George Kenney, opposed this operation as he believed that it would take too long to develop airfields at Cape Gloucester given the rapid pace of the Allied advances in the New Guinea region, and existing airfields were adequate to support the attacks on Rabaul and planned landings at other locations. However, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, the commander of Alamo Force, and MacArthur's naval commanders believed that it was necessary to invade New Britain in order to gain control of the strategic Vitiaz Strait through which it was planned to send convoys carrying Allied forces to locations in Western New Guinea. However, the planned landing at Gasmata was cancelled in November due to concerns over the Japanese reinforcing the region and its proximity to the airfields at Rabaul, as well as the terrain being judged too swampy. Instead, on 21 November it was decided to capture the Arawe area on the south-west coast of New Britain in order to estabish a base for PT boats and hopefully divert Japanese attention away from the main landing at Cape Gloucester.[21] After taking into account the availability of shipping and air cover, the landing at Arawe was scheduled for 15 December and that at Cape Gloucester for the 26th of that month.[22]

Alamo Force was responsible for developing plans for Operation Dexterity, with work on this having commenced in August 1943. Intelligence to inform these plans was sourced from Marine and Alamo Scout patrols which were landed in New Britain between September and December, as well as from aerial photography.[23] The 1st Marine Division was the main unit selected for the Cape Gloucester landing; combined with artillery, transport, construction and logistics units this force was designated the Backhander Task Force.[24] The force selected for Arawe was built around the 112th Cavalry Regiment, which had been dismounted and was serving as infantry. The cavalry regiment was augmented with artillery and engineer units, with the overall force being designated the Director Task Force.[25]

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters assessed the strategic situation in the Southwest Pacific in late September 1943, and concluded that the Allies would attempt to break through the northern Solomon Islands and Bismarck Archipelago in the coming months en route to Japan's inner perimeter in the western and central Pacific. Accordingly, reinforcements were dispatched to strategic locations in the area in an attempt to slow the Allied advance. Strong forces were retained at Rabaul, however, as it was believed that the Allies would attempt to capture the town. At the time, Japanese positions in western New Britain were limited to airfields at Cape Gloucester on the island's western tip and several small way stations which provided small boats travelling between Rabaul and New Guinea with shelter from Allied aerial attacks.[26]

During October the commander of the Eighth Area Army, General Hitoshi Imamura, judged that the Allies next move would probably be an invasion of western New Britain. In response, he decided to dispatch further units to the area to reinforce its garrison, which was based around the under-strength 65th Brigade and designated Matsuda Force after its commander, Major General Iwao Matsuda.[27] The 17th Division was selected to provide troops for this purpose; the main body of this unit arrived in Rabaul from China on 4 and 5 October, having suffered around 1,400 casualties due to submarine and air attacks while en-route to New Britain. The commander of the 17th Division, Lieutenant General Yasushi Sakai was appointed the new commander of the Japanese forces in western New Britain, but the division's battalions were spread across this region, southern New Britain and Bougainville.[28]


Main article: Battle of Arawe

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.[6]

Australian operations[edit]

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 Australians. The 5th Division, commanded by Major General Alan Ramsay, was chosen for this operation, having concentrated aroun Madang in May 1944, following operations to secure the Huon Peninsula.[29] At the time, Allied intelligence underestimated Japanese strength on the island, believing it to be held by around 38,000 men. While this was incorrect by several factors, Allied assessments of Japanese intentions were more accurate, with planners believing that Imamura's force would adopt a defensive posture, remaining largely inside the fortifications that had been established around Rabaul.[30]

Australian troops from the 19th Infantry Battalion patrolling Wide Bay

As a result, Ramsay's force was ordered to carry out a containment operation designed to isolate the Japanese garrison on the Gazelle Peninsula.[6] In doing so, Ramsay was ordered to keep the pressure on the Japanese while avoiding committing large-scale forces. Nevertheless, it was decided that the Australians would carry out a limited offensive, consisting largely of patrol actions, with the goal of advancing beyond the western tip of the island where the US garrison had remained. To achieve this, the Australian commanders decided to establish two bases: one around Jacquinot Bay on the southern coast, with a supporting base on the north coast around Cape Hoskins.[6][30]

In early October 1944, the 36th Infantry Battalion was landed at Cape Hoskins to begin taking over from the US garrison.[31] Meanwhile, early the next month, the remaining elements of the Australian 6th Infantry Brigade landed at Jacquinot Bay. In the weeks that followed, large amounts of stores and equipment were landed, along with support personnel and labourers to begin construction on facilities including a roads, an airstrip, dock facilities, and a general hospital. This work would last until May 1945.[32] Two squadrons of Royal New Zealand Air Force were later flown in to support Allied operations on the island,[33] and US landing craft from the 594th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment provided support until the Australian Landing Craft Company arrived in February 1945.[34]

Due to limited shipping resources, the transfer of the 5th Division was delayed significantly and ultimately was not completed until April 1945. Nevertheless, in December, the Australian advance began with the intention of 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.[35] This saw a series of amphibious landings, river crossings and small-scale actions.[36] The 36th Infantry Battalion began expanding their foothold around Cape Hoskins in early December pushing forward towards Bialla via barge, where two companies established a forward base from where they began patrolling east. After establishing that the Japanese had withdrawn behind the Pandi River, a new base was established around Ea Ea, with the troops again being moved forward by barge. The 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion arrived to reinforce them in January 1945.[37] After this, the Australians on the north coast pushed their line towards Open Bay, establishing an outpost around Baia and patrolling the Mavelo Plantation, during which several minor skirmishes were fought.[38]

The 37th/52nd Infantry Battalion coming ashore at Open Bay, May 1945

Meanwhile, on the southern coast, the main advance towards Wide Bay had begun in late December. This involved establishing a forward base around Milim, which was achieved in mid-February 1945 by the 14th/32nd Infantry Battalion which was moved by barge via Sampun.[38] On 15 February, Kamandran was capture following a brief fight during which a patrol from the New Guinea Infantry Battalion carried out a successful ambush.[37][39] At this point, Japanese resistance on the southern coast began to grow and in the final phase of the advance, the Australians began advancing on foot around Henry Reid Bay, to secure the Waitavalo–Tol area, which was held by a Japanese force around battalion strength.[35]

After this, a series of engagements took place over a six week period to reduce the main Japanese position around Mount Sugi, commencing with the 19th Infantry Battalion's assault across the Wulwut River on 5 March.[40] The position around Mount Sugi, which stretched across a number of ridges to the west of the Wulwut, was heavily defended with mortars, machine guns and pillboxes, and heavy rain also frustrated Australian attempts to reduce the Japanese stronghold. Heavy fighting followed, culminating with the 14th/32nd's attack on Bacon Hill on 18 March. Following the capture of Waitavalo–Tol area in March–April, the Australians exploited towards Jammer Bay and sent patrols to link up their northern and southern drives.[41] They also brought in reinforcements, first from the 13th Infantry Brigade and then the 4th,[42] as the offensive part of their campaign effectively came to an end. In the months that followed, the Australians mounted a series of patrols aimed at maintaining the line around the neck of the Gazelle Peninsula to prevent any attempt by the Japanese to break out from Rabaul. This lasted until the end of the war in August 1945.[36]


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.[43] Total Japanese losses in New Britain and the other islands in the Bismarck Archipelago are estimated at around 30,000 dead, mostly from disease and starvation.[1]

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.[44] 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.[35] 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.[45] 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.[46]




  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ Rottman 2002, p. 184.
  3. ^ a b c Rottman 2002, p. 185.
  4. ^ Rottman 2002, p. 188.
  5. ^ a b c d e Moremon, John. "Rabaul, 1942 (Longer text)". Australia-Japan Research Project. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 April 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Grant 2016, p. 225.
  7. ^ Keogh 1965, pp. 100–111.
  8. ^ Frei, Henry. "Why the Japanese were in New Guinea (Symposium paper)". Australia-Japan Research Project. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c Moremon, John. "New Britain, 1944–45 (Longer text)". Australia-Japan Research Project. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  10. ^ Mortensen 1950, p. 312.
  11. ^ Shindo 2001.
  12. ^ Mortensen 1950, pp. 312–313.
  13. ^ Long 1963, pp. 268–270.
  14. ^ Rottman 2009, pp. 21–22.
  15. ^ a b Horner, David. "Strategy and Command in Australia's New Guinea Campaigns (Symposium paper)". Australia-Japan Research Project. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 24 April 2017. 
  16. ^ Miller 1959, pp. 224–225.
  17. ^ Mortensen 1950, pp. 316, 318.
  18. ^ Miller 1959, pp. 230–232.
  19. ^ Miller 1959, p. 253.
  20. ^ a b Miller 1959, p. 270.
  21. ^ Miller 1959, pp. 273–274.
  22. ^ Miller 1959, p. 274–5.
  23. ^ Miller 1959, pp. 276–277.
  24. ^ Miller 1959, pp. 278–279.
  25. ^ Miller 1959, p. 277.
  26. ^ Shaw & Kane 1963, pp. 324–325.
  27. ^ Miller 1959, p. 280.
  28. ^ Shaw & Kane 1963, pp. 326–327.
  29. ^ Keogh 1965, pp. 395, 410–411.
  30. ^ a b Keogh 1965, p. 410.
  31. ^ Long 1963, pp. 249–250.
  32. ^ Mallett 2007, pp. 288–289.
  33. ^ Bradley 2012, p. 408.
  34. ^ Long 1963, p. 250.
  35. ^ a b c Long 1963, p. 270.
  36. ^ a b Grant 2016, pp. 225–226.
  37. ^ a b Keogh 1965, p. 411.
  38. ^ a b Long 1963, p. 253.
  39. ^ Long 1963, pp. 255–256.
  40. ^ Long 1963, p. 256–257.
  41. ^ Keogh 1965, p. 412.
  42. ^ Long 1963, pp. 260–261.
  43. ^ Grant 2016, pp. 226–227.
  44. ^ Long 1963, pp. 250 & 269.
  45. ^ Grant 2016, p. 226.
  46. ^ Tanaka 1980, p. 127.


Further reading[edit]

  • Hough, Frank O., and John A. Crown (1952). The Campaign on New Britain. USMC Historical Monograph. Historical Division, Division of Public Information, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps. OCLC 63151382. 

External links[edit]