- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Encounter, HMAS Warrego I, HMAS Yarra I, HMAS Sydney I
- October 1982 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
ON THE 11TH SEPTEMBER 1914, Lieutenant R.G. Bowen, RAN, with 25 men of the left half company of No. 6 Company of the Naval Battalion of the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force landed at Kabakaul in New Britain, to destroy the main German wireless station in the area. They became the first Australians to actually fight the enemy in the Great War.
No. 6 Company landed from the destroyers Yarra and Warrego. The first destroyer to be built in Australia was therefore present at this memorable first. In the advance to the wireless station strong resistance was met, resulting in Able Seamen Courtney and Williams being hit. AB W.G.V. Williams was killed, thus becoming the first Australian to lose his life from enemy fire in the Great War. A military medical officer, Captain B.C.A. Pockley, went to the assistance of the fallen Williams and was shot dead for his troubles. He became the second Australian to be killed in action, and the first Australian soldier to lose his life from enemy fire. The half company commander. Midshipman R.L. Buller, was sent back to bring up reinforcements. Lieutenant-Commander C.B. Elwell, RN, came forward with another company, and was killed leading a bayonet charge, sword in hand. This was the first bayonet charge against the Germans in their own territory, Elwell becoming the first Naval Officer to lose his life in the campaign. In the following fighting the naval force was heavily engaged, and it was to them that the first decoration and awards in the Great War for Australians were made. Lieutenant T.A. Bond, RANR, was awarded the DSC, whilst Lieutenant Bowen, Sub-Lieut C. Webber, RANR, and Midshipman R.L. Buller, RANR, were awarded Mentioned-in-Dispatches. Lieutenant Bowen was the first British officer to lead British troops into action in enemy territory, and the first Australian officer to be wounded.
One just claim is that the naval battalion were Australia’s first ‘jungle fighters’, and it is their proud claim that they fought the RAN’s first fight.
The raising of this force was very rapid indeed. Between the 11th August and 19th August 1914, the naval battalion was put together and then embarked in the AMC Berrima. Battalion organisation was carried out for a normal naval battalion of that time.
Each company of about 50 men was under the command of a lieutenant, with a subdivision of the company into the left and right half companies each under the command of a junior officer. In the case of this naval battalion most of the half company commanders were midshipmen. Six companies were raised, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 coming from NSW, Nos. 4 and 5 from Victoria, whilst No. 6 company consisted mainly of men from South Australia. The Queenslanders were attached to the NSW companies.
Artillery support was provided upon landing in Rabaul in the form of the 12 pounder field guns landed from the cruisers Sydney and Encounter, and placed under the control of the naval battalion. Midshipman R.S. Veale, RANR, took over the Encounter gun, whilst Sub-Lieutenant C. Webber, RANR, took over Sydney’s field gun. Each gun fired six rounds, at extreme range, obtained by digging the trails in about one foot. This was mainly to ‘impress the local inhabitants’, according to Commander R.S. Veale, CMG, VRD, RANR (ret), who was commanding one of the guns at the time. It appears that the locals were impressed as they ‘with one accord yelled ‘long way too much’.’ This appears to be the only time that the guns were fired. Midshipman Veale was the right half company leader of Lieutenant Bond’s No. 6 Company, and took part in the original landing and early fighting against the entrenched enemy, the guns not being provided until after two days of operations. The naval battalion was a flexible unit, designed to be formed from seamen and stokers from whatever ships were available and depended on the number of hands that could be spared, and was divided into a right and left half battalion, in the same manner as provided by the companies. In this case there was a right half and left half battalion leader.
Of the original battalion, it seems as though there are only three known survivors at the present time, with Commander R.S. Veale as the senior officer.