One hundred years ago, in September 1914, Australia began its first ever joint military operation. The occupation of German New Guinea, taking place more than seven months before the Anzac landings, will always be overshadowed by the larger and more violent event at Gallipoli, but in its own regional context it was at least equally significant. Initiated in response to a British request, the operation sought to achieve a number of important outcomes in support of the Empire’s war effort, including the acquisition of German colonial resources, the disruption of Germany’s Pacific communications and the denial of an important coaling base to the German Navy’s East Asian Cruiser Squadron.
The force assembled for the occupation, known officially as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), numbered around 1500 troops; and their rapid deployment in the armed transport Berrima stands as a notable achievement for a people who had been at war for just over a month. Among the many newly enlisted military men were several companies of experienced naval reservists and protection for the whole came from a large Australian naval flotilla that included a battlecruiser, three cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and a gunboat. These warships would ensure that the German East Asian Squadron did not interfere. Auxiliary vessels were also required to provide fuel and stores and, since German resistance seemed likely, among them was the well-appointed hospital ship Grantala, with an embarked medical staff of more than 50, including a matron and six nurses. Although largely unrecognised at the time, these women became the Australian Navy’s first female entrants.
The operation’s initial objective was the wireless station at Bitapaka near the German colonial capital at Rabaul, and the first landing by a company of naval reservists took place at dawn on 11 September at the small stone jetty at Kabakaul. Ashore, the enemy numbered some 300 German and native troops. They had prepared several well-defended trenches along the main road leading from Kabakaul, but by bold action and bluff the Australian naval men outflanked and overwhelmed the opposition and completed the destruction of the wireless station. For his bravery during the action, naval Lieutenant Thomas Bond was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the first Australian serviceman to be decorated in World War I.
AN&MEF casualties were remarkably light, but included six killed and four wounded, again the first to be suffered by Australian forces during the war. Enemy casualties amounted to at least 31 killed, 11 wounded and 75 taken prisoner. Threatened by the big guns of the fleet and unable to contemplate further resistance, the local German Governor capitulated soon afterwards, and then in a series of bloodless affairs the Australians proceeded to occupy the remainder of German New Guinea.
In all, it was a remarkably successful expedition, expanding Australian influence at a critical time and highlighting what the young nation could achieve on its own account. But there remained one further tragedy to be suffered. On 14 September, the Australian submarine AE1 failed to return from a routine patrol outside Rabaul. A succession of searches revealed no trace either of the submarine or its crew, and it seems likely that she sank during a test dive, possibly following a marine accident. The loss, the new Navy’s first, brought condolences from around the Empire and has continued to be remembered by successive generations of naval men and women. This month, a new search has begun using a modern Australian minehunter, HMAS Yarra. We could do no better than wish her crew every success in their attempt to find the wreck.
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David Stevens is the Royal Australian Navy’s historian. He holds a doctorate in naval history from the University of New South Wales, spent twenty years as a naval warfare officer and still serves as an officer in the active reserve. He has published and lectured extensively on naval history and maritime strategy both locally and internationally.
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