WHAT ABOUT RABAUL?
On 23rd January 1942 the Japanese easily captured Rabaul, in Australian administered New Guinea. The Australian garrison, of ill equipped, badly trained, almost leaderless men, was sent bush without even their ‘hard tack’ rations. The civilians were left to fend for themselves.
‘Australia would never stand our men being deserted’1 said Sir Earle Page to the War Cabinet assembled in London, 21st January 1942. He was expressing his opinion of Churchill’s hypothetical suggestion that the British evacuate Singapore.
Did Earle Page not know that the Australian Chief of Naval Staff had sent a cablegram on 12th December 1941 to the Australian Minister in Washington, Rt. Hon. R.G. Casey. This stated ‘it is considered better to maintain Rabaul only as an advanced air operational base, its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune.’ 2
This small garrison, so summary dismissed, consisted of about 1400 military personnel. Rabaul and the surrounding islands were home also to many hundreds of Australian families. Over Christmas 1941 European women and children were evacuated, leaving as part of the ‘hostages to fortune’ about 500 European men, mostly over military age.
Any one looking at a map of the Pacific can see the strategic importance of Rabaul. The town had a magnificent harbour and excellent port, reasonably easy to defend. In 1939 it had two airfields and good wireless communications. Having been the centre of Germany’s southern Pacific interests pre WWl, and retained as capital by the Australians, by WWII it had symbolic as well as strategic importance.
Many of the resident male Europeans were WWl veterans, some with over 20 year’s experience of Island life. These men continued the pioneering work begun by the Germans, building up plantations, missions, mines, ports, trade. Many had excellent relationships with the New Guineans.
At the outbreak of WWll these men assumed that the importance of Rabaul would be recognized. They knew Germany was still interested in her former colony and had excellent knowledge of the Islands, including the Territory’s various safe anchorages useful for German navy operations. They knew too that Japan, given the mandate of the Caroline Islands after WWI, had built bases there which placed New Guinea within reach. And they were aware that Japanese had been spying around the Islands for years. So the energetic core of resident Europeans acted. The New Guinea Voluntary Rifles was formed, defence work begun, Coast Watchers recruited. The Australian government and Chiefs of Staff however were not much interested.
Earle Page during September and October 1941, on the way to his appointment as Australian envoy in London, had visited the Netherlands East Indies, Singapore, the Philippines, Canada, USA. In London he would tell the British there were not enough fighter aircraft in Singapore. Rabaul at that time had none.
At the same time the Australian government agreed to spend £666,500 on behalf of the United States for further development of New Caledonia as an operational base and the 3rd Independent company was sent to Noumea as a gesture to the Free French.
On that day, 21st January 1942, that Earle Page in London was busy lecturing the British regarding their responsibilities in Singapore, the military commanders in Rabaul were busy preparing - or not preparing, it was a rout - to abandon Rabaul and the civilians.
Who was the senior Australian representative in Rabaul? Harold Page, Earle Page’s brother. Harold Page, Acting Administrator since September 1941 (the Administrator, Sir W. McNicholl left Rabaul then to reside in Lae) had been the Mandated Territory’s Government Secretary since 1923.
On 22nd January, Harold Page left Rabaul for an outlying plantation. The Assistant District Officer wrote in his dairy ‘visited Raniola Plantation interviewed Mr H.H. Page, Government Secretary.’ 3 Page left behind him hundreds of civilians, having done nothing to facilitate their escape on the many small ships available.
On 23rd January, in Rabaul, the civilian population was surrendered to the Japanese by the Chief Civil Warden N. L. Clark, Rabaul Times editor, Gordon Thomas, and perhaps two other Australians.
What exactly Harold Page was told by the Australian Government has never been satisfactorily explained. He was to say when a POW 'as late as the morning of the 20th Jan he received a reply to an earlier cable saying that the situation was in hand and to carry on as usual!’ 4. Had Page ever been informed that he, and those he was supposed to be protecting, had been considered ‘hostages to fortune’ since 12th December 1941, or was he told only of 15th December decision?
On 15th December 1941, the Chiefs of Defence Staff considered it essential ‘ to maintain a forward air observation line as long as possible and to make the enemy fight for this line rather than abandon it at the first threat.’ 5
Harold Page on 15th January 1942 telegraphed Canberra, ‘It now appears that the defence policy for the territory is to be limited to demonstrations of force rather than any serious attempt to hold the territory against any enemy attack in force and there are indications that such an attack will take place in the very near future. For these reasons it is considered urgent that consideration should be given to the position of civil population of the territory and if necessary their evacuation.’ 6 Events on the ground were following the plan outlined in 12th December cablegram to Washington.
The Acting Administrator’s brother, Earle Page left London over Christmas 1941, for a six-day holiday with relations in Belfast. It seemed Earle Page, in spite of such important personal connections with New Guinea, treated the Mandated Territory as a child treats an unwanted toy - as did most Australian politicians in 1941.
Australia had been an independent nation since 1901 and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea was her responsibility. Rabaul was of vital importance to the allies from the onset of WWII. The Australian Government with up to date information and backed by a patriotic, highly motivated and experienced core of British subjects, well supported by the majority of the New Guineans, could have given mature advice to the British. Instead the Australian cabinet and Chiefs of Staff became fixated on Singapore.
Was Singapore really of vital importance to Australia?
It could be argued that if the Japanese wanted to invade Eastern Australia they could have done so without Singapore. However it is hard to visualise such an undertaking proceeding without controlling Rabaul. The Japanese captured Rabaul before Singapore. It was from Rabaul their fleet sailed, with transports, to the battle of the Coral Sea. From Rabaul their planes bombed Moresby, their troops left for the Owen Stanley Range.
The capture of Rabaul not only placed the Japanese much closer to Port Moresby and Australia, it also gave them the vast untapped wealth of New Guinea. And there they dug in. Rabaul became a labyrinth of tunnels as did other strategic outlying areas in New Britain. It is said they could have remained unconquered there for years, harassing Australia at will.
As early as June 1942 General MacArthur and his staff made plans to recapture Rabaul in 2 weeks. This was then increased to 18 days. Thousands of lives were to be lost trying to recapture or neutralise it. Soldiers, sailors, airmen were to die fighting on the Kokoda Trail, Milne Bay, Buna, Guadalcanal. Australians, Papuan New Guineans, Americans fought in Papua, New Guinea, the Solomons, through 1942, 1943, 1944.
By 1943, the Americans had become so interested in New Britain, the Australian General Blamey believed that the operations there would be undertaken by American forces ‘to strengthen a claim to retain New Britain in the post-war settlement’. 7 MacArthur however took little interest in Singapore.
Back to Earle Page and the Australian government of 1942. On the very day Rabaul fell, 23rd January, the Australian War Cabinet received a cablegram from Earle Page stating the
British government had considered the evacuation of Singapore. Another paragraph was inserted into the communiqué about to be sent to London. ‘ Page has reported the Defence Committee has been considering evacuation of Malaya and Singapore. After all the assurances we have been given, the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal. Singapore is a central fortress in the system of Empire and local defence’. 8
Were Churchill and his advisers aware of what had happened that day in Rabaul? Churchill was angered by the Australian attitude to his hypothetical suggestions regarding Singapore. If he had known the full extent of the debacle in Rabaul he might have been even angrier!
Lt. Col. Rowell is quoted as saying after the fall of Rabaul, ‘its not the first time a few thousand men have been thrown away and it won’t be the last’. Later in conversation with the historian, D.M. Horner he said ‘they [the Chiefs of Staff] had the scale of attack all wrong. The Japanese employed a division against a battalion. It was bad luck for the battalion that the Japanese intended making Rabaul their main base.’ 9
Where exactly did the Chiefs of Staff think the Japanese main base would be? Any reasonably intelligent person with up to date knowledge of Rabaul would have expected it to be there.
The Chiefs of Staff also showed their lack of knowledge and responsibility when in their report of 15th December 1941 they stated that the withdrawal of the garrison and abandonment of Rabaul was not possible because of the effect it ‘would have on the minds of the Dutch in NEI.’ 10 Apparently they did not worry about abandoning Australian civilians, the Chinese community or the New Guineans, Australia was supposed to be protecting under the mandate. And they had, of course, no concern for the small Australian garrison.
Paul Hasluck, later Governor General of Australia wrote ‘The most charitable view, namely that Canberra was out of touch with what was happening in New Guinea, is itself a criticism only less damning than the alternative view that Canberra did know but did not care enough. - - - -
Government policy in the ensuing weeks [after the fall of Rabaul ] was to water down the news of disasters lest Australians should get scared.’ 11
Sixty years on, the establishment is not just watering down the fall of Rabaul and the subsequent loss of life, but washing it away.
In 2002, it is still the fall of Singapore that most Australian historians are discussing. They pick over every detail in ever more conferences, discussion papers, articles. And the fall of Rabaul? The Australian War Memorial,Remembering 1942 history conference had no paper on the subject. The Menzies Centre in London convened in Cambridge a conference on Churchill and Australia. Amongst the topics discussed were the fall of Singapore and the latter stages of the Pacific war. There were no major articles or programmes in the Australian media on Rabaul. Singapore though was well covered.
Establishment humbug can perhaps be illustrated by the AUSTRALIANS REMEMBERED MAP, published in early 2002, with the help of the AWM and the Australian government. This map lists Australian war losses since Federation. It claims to show ‘significant actions and events’.
What then of the fall of Rabaul? An arrow pointing to Rabaul states ‘23/1/42 Japanese forces land at Rabaul.’ It then notes ‘4/3/42 160 AIF POWs murdered by their captors at Tol & Waitavola plantations.’ 12 Nothing else!
It also names ships sunk with loss of Australian life during this period. One however is certainly missing - the Montevideo Maru.
It is officially said that over 1000 men, civilian and military - including Harold Page - captured after the fall of Rabaul, drown when this ship was sunk by USA submarine off the Philippines in July 1942. If so this was almost certainly the biggest maritime disaster in Australian history. Yet the AUSTRALIANS REMEMBERED MAP does not mention it.
No other allies were involved in the fall of Rabaul, it is purely an Australian tragedy. Is that why now sixty years on it can still be ignored? Well over a thousand Australians ‘hostages to fortune’, are still hostages to incompetence and betrayal.
‘Singapore’ before and after it fell, was used in some Australian quarters to foment hostility towards the British. It still is. One example is the use made of it by present day members of the republican movement. The loss of Australian lives at Singapore, seen as a betrayal of Australia by the British, is reason enough, they think, to attack the Crown and Australian ties with the United Kingdom. They do not mention the betrayal of Rabaul by the Australian Government.
Neither did they question the United States’ role in the fall of Rabaul. This republic, a model for many in the republican movement, had no vision in WWII for either the south-west Pacific or Australia.
That infamous cablegram of 12th December 1941, sent - to Washington - shows the USA played a part in the tragic debacle at Rabaul.
‘In view of the present situation,’ it stated, ‘Naval Board have reviewed proposals for development of Rabaul as defended base. Formerly it was not intended to develop Rabaul beyond the requirements of an advanced air operational base. ------- U.S.A. request was acceded to and offer of assistance accepted on the implied understanding that U.S.A. forces would at least occasionally operate in the area and possibly in the ‘shaded area’. It would appear under present circumstances that the proposed plan would be greatly delayed or even impossible to fulfill.-------
Under the foregoing circumstances and as the reinforcements and subsequent supply would be hazardous without United States co-operation, it is better to maintain Rabaul only as an advanced air operational base, its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune.’ 13
The USA confused the position of Rabaul not only for the Australian government and Chiefs of Staff, but perhaps more importantly, for the European residents of the Mandated Territory.
Paul Hasluck wrote concerning the aftermath of the fall of Rabaul ‘In the escape of survivors, both soldiers and civilians, there were suffering, endurance, dangers and adventures that should make a nation’s legends for years.’ 14
The whole Australian nation is entitled to know the facts surrounding the fall of Rabaul. It can then have a better perspective of its WWII history and be able to give recognition to the sacrifices and achievements of many individual Australians.
- Defence Committee (operations) minutes, 21st January 1942.
CAB 69/4, DC (42) 4 PRO. ; D.M. Horner, High Command. Allen & Unwin, 1982. p 150.
- Cablegram, Australian Archives Documents series A2671/1,File 333/41, War Cabinet Agenda files.
- Anne McCosker, Masked Eden, A History of the Australians in New Guinea. Matala Press, 1998. p. 184.
- Anne McCosker, op cit. p. 179. See Chapters 10, 11, 12, 13. for further details.
- M. Horner, Crisis of Command. ANUP, 1978. p 36.
- Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942 – 45. AWM, 1970. (Appendix 2. by AJ. Sweeting.) p. 673.
- D. M. Horner, High Command, p 277.
- D. M. Horner, High Command, p. 152.
- D. M. Horner, Crisis of Command, p. 34.
- ibid., p 35.
- Paul Hasluck, op. cit. p. 135 – 6.
- AUSTRALIANS REMEMBERED MAP, published 2002, Hemma Maps PTY. Ltd, Australia.
- Cablegram, Australian Archives Documents series A2671/l, File 333/41, War Cabinet Agenda files.
- Paul Hasluck, op. cit. p. 136.
W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vols III and IV, Cassell, London, 1950, 51.
The Great Betrayal, David Day. Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1988
Hell and High Fever, David Selby. Pacific Books, 1971.
Singapore, Alan Warren. Hambledon and London, 2002.
The Japanese Thrust, Lionel Wigmore. AWM, 1957.
Published in Heritage, Vol 26, No 102, Spring 2002