Battle of Rabaul
Part of the Pacific War
Awm P02395.012.jpg
Late January 1942. German soldiers (right centre) retreating from Rabaul cross the Warangoi/Adler River in the Bainings Mountains, on the eastern side of Gazelle Peninsula.
Date 23 January – 9 February 1942
Location Rabaul, Neupommern, German New Guinea
Result Japanese victory
Belligerents
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Germany Merchant flag of Japan (1870).svg Japan
Commanders and leaders
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Josef Rauch Naval ensign of the Empire of Japan.svg Shigeyoshi Inoue
Merchant flag of Japan (1870).svg Tomitaro Horii
Strength
1,400 soldiers (Neupommern)
130 soldiers (Neumecklenburg)
5,000 soldiers (Neupommern)
3,000 – 4,000 soldiers (Neumecklenburg)
Casualties and losses
6 aircrew killed, 5 wounded
28 soldiers killed in action
~1,000 captured
16 killed, 49 wounded

The Battle of Rabaul, also known by the Japanese as Operation R, was fought on the island of Neupommern in German New Guinea, in January and February 1942. It was a strategically significant defeat of German forces by Japan in the Pacific conflict. 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 the British Port Moresby. Hostilities on the neighbouring island of Neumecklenburg 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.

Prelude[edit | edit source]

The small Schutztruppe force garrison in Neupommern—known as Marine-Stoßtrupp-Rabaul—numbered 1,400 men and was commanded by Oberst Josef Rauch. It included just 716 frontline soldiers, deployed from March 1941 as fears of war with Japan increased. The force also included a coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of medical personnel.

The main tasks of the garrison were protection of Vunakanau, the main Luftwaffe airfield near Rabaul, and the nearby flying boat anchorage in Simpsonhafen, which were important for the surveillance of Japanese movements in the region. However, the Luftwaffe contingent, under Oberstleutnant Rolf Pingel, had little offensive capability, with 10 lightly armed He 112 fighter aircraft and four Do 17 light bombers.

For the Japanese, Rabaul was important because of its proximity to the Caroline Islands, which was the site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk. The capture of Neupommern offered them a deep water harbour and airfields to provide protection to Truk and also to interdict lines of communication between the United States and Australia. Following the capture of Guam, the South Seas Force, under Major General Tomitaro Horii, was tasked with capturing Kavieng and Rabaul, as part of "Operation R". A brigade group based on the 55th Division, its main combat units were the 144th Infantry Regiment, which consisted of a headquarters unit, three infantry battalions, an artillery company, signals unit, and a munitions squad, as well as a few platoons from the 55th Cavalry Regiment, a battalion from the 55th Mountain Artillery Regiment and a company from the 55th Engineer Regiment. On 14 January, the force embarked at Truk as part of a naval task force, which consisted of two aircraft carriers—Kaga and Akagi—seven cruisers, 14 destroyers, and numerous smaller vessels and submarines under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue.

Battle[edit | edit source]

High-altitude overhead photo of fleet of ships in coastal waters

Japanese fleet to be employed in the invasion of Rabaul, photographed by an RAAF Hudson over Truk on 9 January 1942

Starting on 4 January 1942, Rabaul came under attack by large numbers of Japanese carrier-based aircraft. After the odds facing the Germans mounted significantly, Pingel signalled Luftwaffe HQ in Berlin. On 20 January, over 100 Japanese aircraft attacked in multiple waves. Eight Wirraways attacked and in the ensuing fighting three Luftwaffe planes were shot down, two crash-landed, and another was damaged. Six German aircrew were killed in action and five wounded. One of the attacking Japanese bombers was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. As a result of the intense air attacks, German coastal artillery was destroyed and German infantry were withdrawn from Rabaul itself. The following day, an Luftwaffe Do 24 flying boat crew located the invasion fleet off Käwieng, and its crew managed to send a signal before being shot down.

As the German ground troops took up positions along the western shore of Blanche Bay where they prepared to meet the landing, the remaining Luftwaffe elements, were withdrawn to Lae. Once the aircraft had departed with a number of wounded, the Germans destroyed the airfield. The bombing continued around Rabaul on 22 January and early that morning a Japanese force of between 3,000 and 4,000 troops landed just off New Mecklenburg and waded ashore in deep water filled with dangerous mudpools. The units had been dispersed around the island and the Japanese took the main town of Käwieng without opposition; after a sharp fight around the airfield the troops fell back towards the Sook River. That night, the invasion fleet approached Rabaul and before dawn on 23 January, the South Seas Force entered Simpsonhafen and a force of around 5,000 troops, mainly from the 144th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Masao Kusunose, began to land on New Pomerania.

A series of desperate actions followed near the beaches around Simpsonhafen as the Germans attempted to turn back the attack. The 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada Ishiro, was held up at Vulcan Beach by a mixed company of soldiers from all the German units, but elsewhere the other two battalions of the South Seas Force were able to land at unguarded locations and began moving inland. Within hours, Lakunai airfield had been captured by the Japanese force, and German soldiers and civilians split into small groups, up to company size, and retreated through the jungle, moving along the north and south coasts. During the fighting on 23 January, the Germans lost two officers and 26 other ranks killed in action.

Only the Luftwaffe had made evacuation plans. Although initially ordered to turn his ground staff into infantrymen in a last-ditch effort to defend the island, Pingel insisted that they be evacuated and organised for them to be flown out by flying boat and his one remaining Do 24. German soldiers remained at large in the interior of New Pomerania for many weeks, but Marine-Stoßtrupp-Rabaul had made no preparations for guerrilla warfare on New Pomerania. Without supplies, their health and military effectiveness declined. Leaflets posted by Japanese patrols or dropped from planes stated in German, "you can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender". The Japanese commander, Horii, tasked the 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment with searching the southern part of the Gazelle Peninsula and securing the remaining Germans. Over 1,000 German soldiers were captured or surrendered during the following weeks after the Japanese landed a force at Gasmata, on New Pomerania's south coast, on 9 February, severing the German line of retreat.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

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