- Pfennigwerth, Ian
- History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Warrego I, HMAS Yarra I
- March 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In August 1914 the Australian government responded with caution to a British suggestion that it might undertake the destruction of the radio stations located in German colonial possessions in the Pacific, but it agreed to raise the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) of 1,500 men for the task to be led by the Boer War veteran, Colonel William Holmes. Holmes would have around 1,000 infantryman, two machine gun sections, a signal section and a detachment of the Australian Army Medical Corps. In addition, it was decided that additional volunteers for service overseas should be called from the men of the Kennedy Regiment, a citizen force regiment stationed in north Queensland.
Joining Holmes’s soldiers would be 500 men from the RAN Reserve’s naval brigades. The contingent of six companies, under Commander Joseph Beresford RAN, was made up of men who had responded to a call for ‘volunteers for service in an unspecified overseas area’, and the response was immediate. The Victorian contingent of around 100 was shortly joined by another group from South Australian and the men were kitted out at the Port Melbourne Naval Reserve Depot with the new Lee Enfield .303 rifle. They left Melbourne on a special train for Sydney on 17 August and on arrival early on the following day they marched from Central Station to Sydney Cove to join the expedition members from Queensland and New South Wales and to board the troopship.
The quiet and unobtrusive way in which the naval contingent had assembled and embarked contrasted greatly with the way the Army decided to publicise its own contribution. When the soldiers marched from their camp at Sydney Showground to Sydney Cove on 18 August the streets of the city were lined with cheering crowds, bands were playing, patriotic speeches were made, and the Governor of New South Wales turned up to farewell the troops. If there had been German agents observing, then Governor Haber in Rabaul would have been in no doubt as to what was coming his way. The press continued to refer to the group as the ‘Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force’ and Haber might have drawn some comfort from the fact that many of these were very new soldiers, with no training or experience of warfare.
The 12,000 tonne P&O liner Berrima, which had been commissioned into the RAN under the command of Commander J. B. Stevenson RN, had been quickly modified to carry the expedition, and had been armed with two 4.7 inch guns each forward and aft. After the soldiers and their stores had been ferried to Cockatoo Island to join their Navy colleagues, the ship sailed the following morning, her departure becoming something of a circus with enthusiastic crowds waving and cheering the ship farewell. On clearing the Heads, Stevenson wasted no time in test-firing his new weapons and putting his guns’ crews through their paces: it was wartime and there was no information on where the German cruisers of the East Asiatic Squadron might be. ANMEF Berrima
Berrima steamed north into a gale and headed for Moreton Bay to land and collect mail. She then sailed to rendezvous off Lady Elliot Island with the cruiser HMAS Sydney on 22 August. Still not officially aware of their purpose or destination, the men of the ANMEF found themselves at anchor off Palm Island near Townsville the following day. There they underwent two weeks of training to develop skills in the rugged hills, dense jungle and mangrove swamps appropriate to their task in German New Guinea. Contemporary reports do not indicate that the commander or his officers had any doubts about their preparedness for the mission, and Holmes expressed himself thus:
At the beginning of the cruise it may be doubted whether 20% of the force had ever seen a modern service rifle before, and it is even alleged by some ribald humorists that one man was caught in the act of trying to load his rifle by poking the cartridges down the barrel! Whatever the truth of this allegation, the rawest of the trainees was not long in learning to handle his rifle with ease and expertise.
He was not as sure of the capabilities of his RANR personnel and thought their officers young and inexperienced: he questioned whether the naval practice of leaving training to the warrant officers and petty officers would produce the required results. As well, they didn’t look like soldiers. The naval brigade men had had to dye their white duck uniforms a shade of tan by soaking them in Condy’s crystals, and to replace their sailor’s caps with army felt hats for jungle fighting.
Meanwhile, Admiral Patey, busy escorting and supporting the occupation of German Samoa by New Zealand troops, was gathering his force for a major assault on German New Guinea. The ships at Palm Island sailed on 2 September for Port Moresby, where it was quickly established that the Kennedy Regiment volunteers were in a poor state of preparedness for the operation. Holmes recommended that they be left behind, but Patey was reluctant to give them up so easily. Meanwhile, Patey and Holmes discussed the battle plan. Broadly, they decided that the military contingent should be landed at Rabaul, the chief settlement. The naval contingent would be landed at Herbertshöhe, site of the government, south of the capital, where it was expected that the wireless station would be found. After a preliminary reconnaissance of Simpson Harbour by one of the destroyers, it was to report whether the jetty at Rabaul was a suitable berth for Berrima.
Sydney would embark a party of 50 men from the naval contingent from Berrima and would transfer half his force to the destroyers HMA Ships Warrego and Yarra for landing at Kabakaul, four miles east of Herbertshöhe and take the remainder on to Herbertshöhe itself. Patey’s intelligence suggested that there were in fact two wireless stations in the vicinity of Rabaul and by splitting the landing party his men could advance on several routes, one of which must result in the discovery of a least one of the stations.
Early on the morning of 7 September, 50 men under Lieutenant Rowland Bowen RANR, transferred to Sydney and at 0800 the ANMEF, including the Kennedy Regiment, departed Port Moresby to join Patey and his flagship, returning from Samoa, at Rossell Island. However, the Queenslanders’ ship straggled and then stopped. Sydney learned that her stokers had refused duty, and would not take the ship out of Australian waters. Despite offers from the soldiers to stoke the boilers, Captain Glossop ordered the ship to return to Townsville.
The two naval forces merged at 1000 two days later and, after further discussions on the plan, the ships sailed for Rabaul. At dawn the following morning, Sydney and the three destroyers detached from the force to take up their positions for the preliminary sweep of Simpson Harbour and the landing of naval parties to search for the wireless station the following morning. At daybreak on 11 September, while the main convoy with Berrima and Australia had entered Simpson Harbour, 25 men of the RANR and her naval 12-pounder field gun crew had been landed at Herbertshöhe by Sydney, and Bowen’s party had landed at 0700 from Warrego and Yarra, with ten Warrego personnel as communication links between the ship and the advancing landing party.
The Battle of Bita Paka
How did the Germans plan to defend the colony? The two military forces available were around 50 reservists amongst the German population, and a native police force of around 250. The responsibility for training, arming, equipping and feeding the force were matters for Captain von Klewitz, one of three regular officers in the colony. The government could provide around 300 weapons; the planters had their own, and there was ‘ample’ ammunition for them. Haber did also call upon reinforcements from Bougainville and Kaiser Wilhelmsland – the New Guinea mainland – to join the forces gathering at Rabaul. The Governor had also decided that the seat of government should be moved away from the coast to Toma about 10 miles inland.
Both Haber and von Klewitz recognised that this force could not defeat an assault in strength, but it would be enough to hold off landing parties, and to allow the Germans to negotiate a ceasefire. The Germans seemed to believe that once von Spee’s cruisers had been accounted for or had left the Pacific the ‘British’ would lose interest in the Old Protectorate. However, the Bita Paka wireless station was to be held and, if the enemy made for Toma, the entire armed forces were to be used for the defence of the Government. Just in case Bita Paka could not be defended, an auxiliary wireless station site was established west of Toma and equipment stockpiled there.
Von Klewitz deployed two officers to Bita Paka with ten European and 75 native soldiers. The road from Kabakaul to the station was entrenched at two places and mined. A reserve position was established between Bita Paka and Toma, and the bulk of the force with a dozen Europeans and 140 native troops was established at Herbertshohe. They were to withdraw on the landing of enemy troops and to manoeuvre to deliver a flanking attack should they march towards the wireless station. A small detachment was stationed at Toma and von Klewitz established his headquarters east of Toma.
The 27 Australians who went ashore at Kabakaul were only lightly armed: if they ran into difficulties they had no way of communicating that fact and seeking assistance, except by runner. So there must have been a few nervous gulps amongst Bowen’s men as they chambered live rounds in their pistols and .303 rifles that morning and set off down a likely-looking road, well made and maintained, but fringed with dense jungle, into the growing heat of a tropical day. Captain Brian Pockley of the Australian Army Medical Corps, together with a medical orderly, accompanied them.
Bowen’s men first encountered the enemy at around 0800. His scouts worked their way around scrub and spotted an enemy ambush of three Germans and around 20 native police in position. Petty Officer Palmer of the scouting force shot the German NCO in charge, wounding him and compelling him to surrender his men. Bowen persuaded the NCO to advance up the road shouting to his comrades that they might as well surrender too because Bowen force was the advance party of ‘800 Australians’. This ruse resulted in the capture of two of the senior German commanders, and also provided the Australians with intelligence and maps. But Bowen also by now realised that he was in great need of reinforcements before the Germans discovered his trick. This message, together with his prisoners, was relayed to the destroyers, who cobbled together a force of 59 men, most armed with cutlasses (!) under the command of Lieutenant Gerald Hill RNR of Yarra, which sped to Bowen’s aid.
On receiving the call for reinforcements Beresford at Herbertshohe mustered the remaining RANR, amounting to two companies under Lieutenant Gillam, and Lieutenant Thomas Bond, and an Army machine gun section. Lieutenant Commander Charles Elwell, RN was ordered to take charge, to land at Kabakaul jetty and to push forward to join Bowen. However, before the arrival of reinforcements Bowen had worked his scouts forward and discovered the first of the trenches. There were snipers in the trees surrounding the area and here the Australians took their first fatal casualties.
Able Seamen John Courtney and ‘Billy’ Williams were hit by snipers, and Captain Pockley went to their aid. Having treated their wounds, Pockley gave his Red Cross brassard to Leading Stoker Ember, as a means of protecting him and his charges from further enemy fire while getting the wounded men back to Kabakaul. It was a gallant and fatal gesture. Hill’s reinforcements from the destroyers had now reached Bowen and the two officers agreed on a frontal assault on the trench. Bowen was wounded by sniper and Hill took command of the action, while Pockley went to Bowen’s aid. He too was seriously wounded by sniper fire and taken back to Kabakaul, and then recovered to Berrima but both he and Williams died of their wounds that evening.
Hill’s men at the point of the advance were keeping the trench occupants busy with a steady fire, and advancing cautiously, but they were now very tired and thirsty; those who had landed with Bowen at first light had now been on the go for well over six hours in steamy heat. The landing parties had landed in a hurry wearing whatever they had on the time. Now they looked even less like a formed body of men, as Hill described:
Piece by piece our flimsy clothes had been torn by the bayonet-like thorns into ribbons, our faces and bodies scratched and bleeding and the dust mingling with the trickling blood gave us the most ferocious aspect, so that if we looked like a gang of pirates on leaving the ship, by this time we were more like animated scarecrows.
At around 1300 the first relief company reached the firing line before the first German trench. Elwell decided to continue the advance in a flanking movement, with Hill’s men on the left. The Germans continued to fire as the Australians advanced and when about hundred metres from the trench Elwell drew his sword and led a bayonet charge. He was shot down almost instantly and his men went to ground. Hill was, once more, left in charge and the right flank advance was resumed under Petty Officer Frederick Sandys, RN. Abruptly the Germans surrendered by showing a white flag and Hill ordered a cease fire. He had nothing white to acknowledge the German signal except his trousers, and he wasn’t going to take those off, so he waved the white sennet hat of one of his seaman.
The Germans were in a dire military situation and their leader was faced with the impossible dilemma of finding an Australian officer to surrender to amongst this ragtag bunch of ’scarecrows’, to use Hill’s word. The protocol problem was resolved by the arrival of Commander Beresford with the second RANR company and the army machine gunners, with their heavy equipment. Beresford insisted that his terms were unconditional surrender of their forces and the radio station, which was still some miles forward of their position, and the German reluctantly accepted.
Beresford then sent the men of the destroyer landing parties back to their ships and placed Lieutenant Bond in command of 30 of the fittest RANR men, and the machine-gun section, to proceed forward to take possession of the wireless station. An Army intelligence officer, Captain Reginald Travers, joined Bond and they took the German officer with them. The first obstacle encountered was the first trench where the defenders had to be persuaded they were now prisoners of war. Bond’s men moved down the road another three kilometres, coming under ineffective sniper fire as they reached the second trench. The three Germans and 20 New Guinea police in this position quickly surrendered, but as these men were being disarmed, the Australians came under attack from another position about 200 meters further on above a road cutting. Three of Bond’s men went down but the Australians returned fire and about a dozen natives and a German NCO were shot and killed. Reservist Harry Street was killed on the spot and Robert Moffatt later died of his wounds.
Leaving the machine-gun section to guard the trench, Bond continued to advance towards the wireless station, intercepting a German cyclist with a message from Governor Haber ordering his troops to dismantle the wireless station and retreat to Toma. A second captured German messenger was carrying a warning from Captain von Klewitz of the advance of 800 enemy towards Bita Paka. Bond sent him on to the wireless station with a message informing the defenders of the surrender of their position and telling them not to opposition the Australians.
About one km short of the station Bond encountered a police barracks manned by eight armed Germans and 20 New Guinea police with rifles. They refused to surrender. Quietly and quickly Bond snatched the Germans officers’ pistols from their holsters one by one. This gallant and instinctive act brought the battle of Bita Paka to a close and Bond took possession of the wireless station at around 1900 on 11 September. The first Australian battle against an armed enemy had ended in a stunning victory.
Meanwhile, Patey and Holmes had been anxiously awaiting news of the fighting. They had had very little information except for a steady procession of wounded men being brought off from Kabakaul. When Beresford went ashore he was in possession of the information that Patey was prepared to bombard the wireless station if German resistance stiffened. In his report on the action on 13 September, Holmes stated that he had put four companies of infantry ashore at Herbertshohe during the afternoon of 11 September, and that he had persuaded Patey that the bombardment might be necessary should it prove impossible to capture the station that day. Beresford, awaiting news of Bond’s progress, heard firing from the third trench line and sent 30 more men down the road under Midshipman Reginald Buller with instructions that Bond should withdraw if he encountered serious resistance, leaving Australia’s guns to settle the question the following morning. But by midnight he had news of Bond’s occupation of the station.
The following day the wireless station was abandoned with its operating equipment removed. In the months to come its utility was recognised and it was put back into service under RAN control. The ANMEF had registered a most significant victory and it had been achieved very largely by the men of the RANR, with assistance from the fleet. Commander Beresford’s naval contingent had demonstrated their capacity to fight well in unfamiliar territory against what could have been formidable defences. They had suffered casualties too – five dead and four wounded. Neither Holmes’s infantry nor his machine gun sections had seen action; the only Germans most of the army contingent had seen were prisoners of war. There would be decorations too – again the first won by Australians in World War I. Bond was awarded the DSO for his action in effectively stopping German resistance at the police post, and there were twelve Mentions-in-Dispatches, amongst them a posthumous award for Elwell.
The German Capitulation
The expedition now moved to complete the occupation of Rabaul and the capitulation of the German government. On 12 September, Berrima moved north in Blanche Bay and secured alongside the wharf in Rabaul. The garrison, comprising four companies of infantry, a machine gun section and a company of RANR, were put ashore and occupied the town. There was no opposition, and all government offices were seized.
The previous morning Admiral Patey had sent a letter to Haber demanding that he not communicate with enemy forces, asking whether mines had been late in Blanche Bay and requesting ‘the surrender of the town of Rabaul and the dependencies under your control’. The response was received at 1800: Haber refused to surrender because only the Kaiser had that authority, but Patey had no time to quibble over niceties: he was under pressure to get his ships back to Sydney and to be ready to escort the troop convoys to Europe. He informed Haber that henceforward he must negotiate with Holmes who was to take over the administration of the territory.
Holmes sent his own messenger by motorcycle to Acting Governor Haber at Toma with a formal demand for his surrender of German New Guinea the following day. Haber stalled, saying that he would respond by 1630 on 13 September. In the meantime Holmes made preparations for a military assault on the German headquarters, landing additional troops at Herbertshohe.
At daybreak the following morning HMAS Encounter commenced a bombardment with her 6-inch guns of a ridge towards Toma on which a flag and apparent signalling equipment had been sighted the day before. At the same time two companies of the naval brigade set off from Kabakaul and 200 soldiers with the field gun from HMAS Sydney headed down the road from Herbertshohe towards Toma. When they arrived at one settlement the sailors spotted a party of armed Germans and native soldiers who disappeared into the jungle. Two reservists sent to alert the Army contingent returned with stories of devastation caused by Encounter’s shells, with the jungle vegetation stained yellow and holes claimed to be ’big enough to contain fair-sized houses’ blasted in the earth. Outside Toma two rounds from Sydney‘s field gun brought German officers under a flag of truce, requesting an armistice until 1100 on 15 September when Haber would come to meet Holmes at Herbertshohe.
At this meeting Haber spent three hours in negotiations with Holmes and the meeting broke up with Holmes warning him that only the surrender of all German territories would be acceptable terms. Under this ultimatum, there was little the Governor could do but accept, which he did on 17 September. This concluded the hostilities, but there were still a great deal of rounding up of German armed parties and their supplies yet to be accomplished and occupation of outlying parts of the German colony to be achieved. The German capitulation was marked with a ceremony on Monday 21 September, when the Governor formally surrendered the German Southwest Pacific territories to Holmes. German troops were disarmed and those who took oaths of neutrality were allowed to return to their plantations or other occupations. Germans of the regular army was sent to Rabaul and eventually to Australia where they were interned for the duration of the war.
There was still work to be done by the ANMEF but the hardest nut had been cracked. Amid the jubilation, however, was the fact that the submarine AE-1 had failed to return from a patrol in the Duke of York Channel on 15 September and that a thorough search by all available vessels had failed to find any trace of her. That remains the case to this day, despite several well-organised and well conducted expeditions tried to clear up this mystery of nearly 100 years.
 Cited in Meade, Heroes before Gallipoli, P21.
 Patey’s intelligence was correct. There were two wireless stations but they were both at Bita Paka, a new station having them built to replace an earlier one. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy, P80.
 Captain Wuchert and Lieutenant Mayer, who had been planning to lead their forces in a flanking attack on the Australians. The capture effectively decapitated the German force.