A Boomerang fighter plane came over and buzzed us. We couldn’t see its markings at first, and thinking it was a Jap plane, we dived for cover. The bloody thing frightened hell out of us, but on its last run it dropped a small parachute with a container which held the message everyone was waiting to hear—WHITE FLAGS AT RABAUL.

Lance Corporal Kevin O’Farrell, 37/52nd Battalion, Australian Army. Read more about this account.

Location and background

New Britain is the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago. This is a group of islands to the east of mainland Papua New Guinea.

New Britain has several active volcanoes. A central spine of mountains runs down the middle of the island. Several peaks reach over 2,100m.

From 1884, New Britain was part of German New Guinea, and was known as Neu-Pommern (New Pomerania). Rabaul was the capital of the Territory of New Guinea governed by Australian civil administration under League of Nations' mandate following the First World War.

Invasion of Rabaul

Rabaul's location and its deep, sheltered harbour made it strategically important. It sits on the northern point of the Gazelle Peninsula, on the north-east tip of New Britain. The peninsula is around 100km across at its widest, but narrows to only 30km at the isthmus where it joins the rest of the island.

Rabaul was the site of the initial Japanese invasion of New Guinea. Japanese forces captured Rabaul on 23 January 1942. The small Australian garrison, known as Lark Force, was quickly overwhelmed.

Following the Japanese invasion and occupation of Rabaul, nearly 2,000 Australians were killed. Many Chinese, New Guineans and people of other nationalities also died.

Around 400 Australian military personnel and civilians managed to escape after the invasion. Many spent three months trekking through the rugged mountains and jungles of the Gazelle Peninsula, trying to reach a rescue point. At Tol Plantation, Japanese forces massacred 160 Australians. Others escaped by boat to neighbouring New Ireland.

More than 1,000 prisoners of war, mostly those captured in Rabaul, died when the Japanese ship the Montevideo Maru, was sunk by a US submarine. The Captain of the submarine did not know the prisoners on board.

Retaking of New Britain

Allied forces repeatedly bombed Rabaul from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945. It was the most heavily bombed area in the South West Pacific.

In 1943, the Allies launched Operation Cartwheel, which aimed to neutralise the Japanese force on New Britain. Allied forces captured Japanese airfields at Cape Gloucester, and by August 1944, the Japanese were isolated on New Britain. The Australian 5th Division took over from US forces and advanced towards Rabaul. They established a cordon across the narrowest part of the Gazelle Peninsula. This cut the Japanese base at Rabaul off from the rest of New Britain.

Australian forces maintained the cordon until the formal Japanese surrender of the Rabaul garrison on 6 September 1945. Then they liberated Rabaul, rescuing thousands of prisoners of war and civilian internees of many nationalities.

Papua New Guinea
1942 to 1945
Image caption
A Beaufort bomber aircraft of No. 100 Squadron RAAF over the coast of New Britain after a bombing raid on the Japanese, 6 March 1944. Note the bomb burst in the low-lying coastal area. Cloud partially obscures a mountain range.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 016639. Photo by Frank N. Bagnall.

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