It was just dawn, grey light, and I remember thinking 'this was very strange,' and [my father and uncle] were talking and you could sort of feel that something terrible was happening.

Diana Martell, child survivor of the Japanese invasion of Rabaul. Read her story.

Location and history

Rabaul is a township on the north-eastern end of the Gazelle Peninsula, on the island of New Britain.

The township was founded in 1910 as the German colonial headquarters, partly due to its sheltered natural harbour. After Germany's defeat in the First World War, the League of Nations placed German New Guinea under Australia. Rabaul became the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. It quickly grew into a thriving town.

Rabaul and its harbour sits inside the caldera of an ancient volcano. Two of the volcano's sub-vents, Tavurvur and Vulcan, are highly active. On 6 June 1937, they both erupted, devastating the town and killing 507 people. A similar catastrophic eruption occurred in 1994.

Following the 1937 eruption, the Australian government planned to move the capital of New Guinea to Lae for safety. However, the move was delayed by the start of the Second World War in 1939.

Significance to the war

When war broke out, Rabaul was home to many Australian and European officials and planters. There was also Australia’s Lark Force, consisting of Army and Air Force personnel, deployed in 1941 in anticipation of Japanese aggression.

On 7 December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This caused both the US and Australia to declare war on Japan.

After the declaration of war, it quickly became clear that Japan intended to attack the Australian Territories of Papua and New Guinea. The Australian government evacuated women and children from Rabaul and other towns. But soldiers and civilian men weren't given the option to leave. Nearly 2,000 Australians were killed following the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23 January 1942. Many New Guineans, ethnic Chinese and people of other nationalities also died.

Papua New Guinea
Image caption
A group of tombstones of Rabaul residents, taken from the cemetery and placed together where flowers will grow around them. In the background is a Japanese signpost. 25 September 1945.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 097149. Photographer unknown.

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