Category Archives: military

Japanese Surrender at Bougainville and Rabaul, 1945

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6821-6840:

On 11 August, General Savige had ordered his troops on Bougainville to suspend hostilities unless attacked. Two days later, Private Eric Bahr, of the 7th Battalion, was shot dead by an enemy sniper at a position north of Pearl Ridge. Three of his comrades were wounded when the Japanese position was attacked in response. Though others would die later of wounds, accidents and illness, Eric Bahr was the last Australian killed in action on Bougainville.

Lance Corporal Shigeo Nakano, of the II/81st Battalion, had arrived in Rabaul on 3 November 1943. American submarines had sunk one of the convoy transports on the way south, and Nakano’s battalion had reached Rabaul via the deck of the cruiser Minazuki. The unit had been sent south to Bougainville, and after the abortive attack on the Torokina perimeter, the men had been engaged in planting and harvesting what food they could to survive. Now, as the war neared its end, Nakano was at Numa Numa. The Allies had for some time been dropping leaflets urging the Japanese to surrender. Gradually, it dawned on the troops that what these leaflets said about landings in the Philippines and beyond was closer to the truth than what they heard on Japanese radio broadcasts. The latest leaflet informed them that the war had ended—a message reinforced by aircraft with the words ‘Japan has surrendered’ painted under their wings in Japanese. Nakano reflected that ‘of the four thousand troops who sailed from Shanghai less than two years before, only 170 of the originals had survived and we were ragged and starving.’ Some days later, when five Australians arrived at Numa Numa, the Japanese battalion commander paraded his men and offered the Australians the only gifts he had, a fresh coconut each. One of the Aussie soldiers turned to Nakano, held the coconut aloft and said, ‘Well, here’s to peace.’ When the Seventeenth Army commander, Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda, surrendered at Torokina on 8 September 1945, an extraordinary 14,546 Army and 9366 naval personnel ‘went into the bag’ as prisoners.

On 4 September, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura and Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka had surrendered all remaining Japanese army and naval forces on New Britain to Lieutenant General Vernon Sturdee, the commander of the First Australian Army, on the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory, anchored off Rabaul. When the Australians landed at the town, there were 57,225 Japanese Army and 31,923 naval personnel there. The war had long since passed them by. The first repatriations to Japan took place on 28 February 1946, and they continued until 13 June.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, war

Codebreaking in New Guinea, 1944

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6019-37:

On 20 March [1944], Emirau Island, 120 kilometres northwest of Kavieng, was occupied unopposed, and by the end of April two airfields had been constructed there. With Kavieng and Rabaul isolated, MacArthur could now make a great bound towards the Philippines. Having convinced the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Wewak should be bypassed, he planned to strike Hollandia (modern-day Jayapura), just across the border from Wewak in Netherlands New Guinea. Apart from isolating the Japanese Army in New Guinea, MacArthur wanted the prime anchorage of Humboldt Bay and the Lake Sentani airfields for his drive towards Japan.

Intelligence made the Hollandia decision possible. ULTRA decrypts, the decoded Japanese naval and Army communications, had already played an important part in New Guinea operations. ULTRA’s first success had been to expose Japanese intentions during the Papuan campaign, particularly the planned invasions of Port Moresby and Milne Bay. Later plans to reinforce Lae had been uncovered by ULTRA and then undone by the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. ULTRA had then kept MacArthur informed of the air buildup at Wewak, which had been so efficiently nullified by Kenney’s air arm. Now it gave MacArthur the priceless advantage of knowing that Hansa Bay was being reinforced and would be a tough nut to crack. The same was true of Wewak, but the decrypts confirmed that both Aitape and Hollandia were weakly held. The Japanese commanders were thinking in small steps, while MacArthur was planning a great leap.

The Australians played a major part in this intelligence coup. When the radio platoon from the Japanese 20th Division headquarters had pulled out from Sio in the wake of the Australian advance, its men had to carry the heavy components of the radios. However, a large trunk containing all their code books and other cipher material was left behind, buried in a nearby creek. It was discovered by Australian sappers sweeping the former headquarters site for mines and sent back to Australia, where the documents were painstakingly dried out and analysed. The cipher keys gave the Allies access to crucial intelligence on Japanese Army strength and plans in New Guinea.

So MacArthur would boldly strike for Hollandia six months ahead of the originally scheduled date. Though the operation’s code name, Reckless, may have indicated otherwise, MacArthur had the intelligence and the resources to succeed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, language, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Malaria Killed More than Combat in PNG

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4885-4905:

From the moment the Australians flew into Nadzab, they were under insidious assault. Carried by the fragile mosquito, malaria could fell and even kill the strongest of men, and the Ramu Valley, the valley of death in the local dialect, had one of the highest incidences in the country.

The traditional treatment was with quinine, but 90 per cent of the world’s supply came from cinchona-tree plantations in Java, which was now under Japanese occupation. After the 252 Lark Force escapees ran out of quinine on New Britain in early 1942, fifty died within five weeks and most of the remainder needed hospitalisation. An alternative malaria suppressant had to be found or it would be impossible to maintain troops in northern Australia, let alone New Guinea. Atebrin, a synthetic version of quinine that had been developed in Germany before the war, became the Australian Army’s official antimalarial drug, and what quinine remained was reserved for treatment. Australian scientists helped develop practical methods of synthesising Atebrin and pinpointed the dosage that most effectively suppressed malaria among deployed troops. In New Guinea, wearing protective clothing, using mosquito nets, spraying, improving drainage and of course taking the bittertasting Atebrin pills became as important as any combat discipline.

Malaria is not found above elevations of about 1000 metres, but most of the fighting in New Guinea took place along the coast or in the lowlands of the Markham and Ramu Valleys. High rainfall increased the opportunities for mosquitoes to breed, so the relatively dry area around Port Moresby was less dangerous than Milne Bay and the Papuan beachheads, where malaria was rampant. From October 1942 to April 1943, malaria caused almost five times more casualties than combat did. Even that was not the full story, as most affected men had recurrences of the disease after returning to Australia. The highly malarial environment of the Ramu Valley almost crippled the Australian campaign. Almost 1 in 10 of the operational troops were falling ill with malaria each week, meaning that within eleven weeks almost all would be infected. There were other diseases, some—such as scrub typhus—much deadlier, but malaria accounted for 90 per cent of losses due to disease. As a result of the scientists’ studies, the daily Atebrin dose was doubled, and the infection rate fell by about two-thirds. For Japanese troops in New Guinea, malaria was also a serious problem. Though they had stocks of quinine, the progressive breakdown of their supply system meant that almost all frontline troops were infected with malaria, and deaths from it increased as the war went on.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, disease, drugs, Japan, malaria, military, Papua New Guinea, war

The Japanese Retreat from Lae, PNG

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4518-4577:

After the loss of the Bismarck Sea convoy the previous March, the Japanese command in Lae had seen the writing on the wall and made contingency plans for evacuation. As part of those preparations, the engineering unit of Lieutenant Masamichi Kitamoto had orders to blaze a land route across the Huon Peninsula to Lae. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Kitamoto had run for Japan. Now he would again be asked to use his legs for his country. A week after the loss of the Lae convoy, his fifty-man detachment from the 30th Regiment Independent Engineers crossed the Vitiaz Strait from Tuluvu, on the western tip of New Britain, and landed on the New Guinea mainland. With a native guide, the heavily burdened engineers set out to cross the Saruwaged Range to Lae. ‘It was just like climbing a slide from the bottom to the top,’ Kitamoto wrote later. ‘You had to bend forward deeply to bring the centre of gravity before you. It was as if someone had put a heavy weight on our heads and [was] pulling our legs at the same time.’ It only got worse: ‘The incline kept going up and up into the skies. Our legs grew stiff and we gasped for breath . . . Gazing at the clouds below us, we continued the march up the sharp incline . . . It was so cold that it seemed that our hands which grasped the rocks to pull us up would become frozen.’ At 4500 metres, Kitamoto’s engineers crossed a summit higher than Mount Fuji in Japan. Almost as testing was the descent down the other side. The expedition to Lae took three weeks, but when Kitamoto reported to Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s headquarters on 3 April, just a month after the Bismarck Sea debacle, Nakano had his escape route.

Now it was mid-September, and the Japanese situation in Lae was desperate as Kitamoto again reported to Nakano’s headquarters. When the young lieutenant entered, Nakano was in conference with his key officers, poring over a map spread across the table. Kitamoto soon learned that Nakano had ordered a retreat: there would be no final battle for Lae. Civilian employees had already left, beginning their trek on 4 September. For the troops who remained, there were two potential routes: across the Saruwaged Range to the north coast, or through the foothills of the Finisterre Range, parallel to the Markham Valley. Having traversed both, Kitamoto was asked for his opinion. ‘The second plan is impossible,’ he told Nakano, knowing that Allied aircraft could easily interdict a route through the kunai grass that covered the foothills. Kitamoto continued: ‘The first plan is difficult, but there is still some chance of success. If I had to make the final decision I would choose Plan 1. However, the sacrifice will be great.’ The die was cast: the order was issued.

The first group of Japanese soldiers, about 2000 naval troops including Kitamoto’s men, set off from Lae on 12 September, making their way inland along the west bank of the Busu River. They formed one of four groups, totalling 8650 men, headed for the high mountains with enough rations to last ten days. Intermediate supply dumps were established north of Gawan and at Iloko. The first and third groups went into the mountains via Gawan, the second and fourth groups via Kemen. Kitamoto’s engineers led the way, setting up signposts and repairing the track as they went. They crossed the Busu about 3 kilometres upstream from the now fallen kunda bridge. General Nakano travelled with the second group, which halted at the Busu for three days while a new bridge was constructed. The final organised group left Lae on 15 September.

Shigeru Horiuchi, a twenty-two-year-old private with III/238th Battalion, had arrived in Lae only a week before the Australian invasion. Since then, his unit had gone through ‘two weeks of hell,’ under constant attack from Allied bombers; ‘even the officers were trembling in funk holes and had no taste for fighting.’ Horiuchi’s company did not leave Lae until 17 September, but Horiuchi was soon forced to drop out because of a leg wound. He was captured a few days later sheltering in a native village 25 kilometres north of Lae.

In the first days of the trek, 200 men had died, mostly wounded and sick. ‘The mountains were only 500 metres high and this much casualties,’ Kitamoto observed with dismay. ‘How many will die before we clear Mt. Sarawaket, which is 4500 metres high? The sharp precipices rising before us will take many victims.’ Once the track began to rise, ‘the soldiers helped each other along, the strong carrying the rifles of weak men. However, as they grow tired, even the strong began to discard their rifles.’ Kitamoto ordered that any discarded weapons should have the chrysanthemum insignia filed off because ‘it was humiliating to throw away the arms that belong to the emperor.’

As the men weakened, the incidence of malaria increased and more men dropped out. In the first 1500 metres of the climb after leaving Kemen, 500 men died. Steep precipices dropped away on both sides of the track. ‘After we escaped the clutches of the enemy we were confronted by nature,’ Kitamoto wrote. Those who lived also confronted the corpses of those who died. ‘Using the dead bodies as stepping stones and clinging to the slippery lichen-covered rocks, the men made their way up the mountain. Fresh red blood ran from the mouths of the dead when they were stepped on and their glassy eyes stared us in the face.’ Approaching 4000 metres, the cold bit hard into lightweight tropical uniforms; though exhausted, the men were afraid to fall asleep lest they freeze to death. Another 800 men died crossing the top of the range. ‘The screaming voices of the men who slipped from the log bridges to their death in the canyons below, the wailing cries of the men who could move no more and were asking for help . . . it was a sense of hell, something quite out of this world.’

By now the rations had gone. Starving, some men ate human flesh. As he approached the summit of Mount Saruwaged, Kitamoto saw that ‘in the shadow of the rocks, three soldiers had pinned a trooper to the ground while one of them stabbed him in the heart with his bayonet. There were no signs that the dead man had asked the others to kill him. The remaining three soldiers cut slices of the dead trooper’s thigh and began to devour the human flesh.’ After Kitamoto shouted at them, ‘the men looked in my direction, flies that gathered about dead meat swarmed about their faces but they had no strength to drive them away. They had become mad with hunger and fatigue.’ Kitamoto covered the corpse and moved on.

In the end even Kitamoto’s strength gave out, and he was carried to the coast on a stretcher. He reached Kiari, some 20 kilometres west of Sio, twenty days after leaving Lae. Staff Officer Sugiyama told him: ‘I wish to bow my head in gratitude for your strong legs. Your legs saved the whole division.’ Once he recovered, Kitamoto headed back to the top of the range to help the stragglers reach the coast. The last stretcher case was brought in on 15 November. An 18th Army report showed that of the 8650 who had left Lae, 6417 survived—a loss of over 25 percent. Most of the survivors staggered into Kiari suffering from malnutrition and malaria. Although only 1271 of them were officially classified as ‘sick,’ Kitamoto wrote that all the men ‘were a group of invalids . . . in no condition to fight.’

Even on the coast, safety was not assured: three men died as they rested on the beach, crushed by a falling coconut tree. ‘At second look, I discovered that they were the men who became mad and ate their comrade during the march,’ Kitamoto wrote. His right-hand man, the native guide Rabo, also knew what these men had done. ‘Those soldiers no good,’ he told Kitamoto as he stared at the three dead men. ‘They eat friend. God punish them.’ As Rabo turned away, Kitamoto felt a shiver run down his spine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, disease, food, Japan, malaria, military, Papua New Guinea, war

Japanese Bayonet Practice in New Britain, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2440-2447, 2592-2601:

In 1942 the great majority of Japanese troops carried the 6.5mm Arisaka Model 38, a long but relatively light rifle that boasted almost no recoil. The weapon also had another important attribute, as described in a U.S. Army intelligence bulletin: “The length of the Model 38 makes it particularly suitable for bayonet fighting. When the Japanese infantryman is armed with this rifle and the Model 30 (1897) bayonet, which is also unusually long, he feels that in close combat he is a match for his larger and taller enemies.” The Imperial Army placed a heavy emphasis on bayonet fighting. Recruits spent hours practicing such moves as the “side-step thrust,” the “low body thrust,” and the “body contact thrust.” At this point in the war, few members of the South Seas Detachment, if any, had personally experienced hand-to-hand combat. They didn’t know what it felt like to pierce a man’s body with the thin, fifteen-inch-long blade affixed to the end of their rifles. But on the morning of February 4, many of Noda’s men would find out.

WHEN THE LONG DAY OF KILLING FINALLY ENDED, NODA’S MEN HAD massacred 160 Australians. All were tied up, rendering them completely defenseless, before they were bayoneted or shot. The mass execution, sanctioned by Colonel Kusunose at Rabaul, almost certainly had the approval of Major General Horii. Afterward, the Japanese tacked a chilling message to the front door of the Waitavalo plantation house: “To Commander Scanlan—Now that this Island is took and tightly surrounded by our Air Forces and Navy you have no means of escape. If your religion does not allow you to commit suicide it is up to you to surrender yourself and to beg mercy for your troops. You will be responsible for the death of your men.” Leaving the bodies to rot in the sun, Noda and his troops boarded their landing craft and headed back to Rabaul, taking with them the twenty-two prisoners that had first surrendered on the beach. The 8th Company stopped at Adler Bay and picked up dozens of soldiers waiting there under a white flag, and also stopped at the Warangoi River for more prisoners, including Harold Page and Harry Townsend. All were delivered to Malaguna Camp, part of which had been wired off to form a prison compound.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, military, nationalism, Papua New Guinea, war

Japan’s South Seas Detachment Crosses the Line, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1125-1147:

Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda, from the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku, kept a diary as he sailed to Rabaul aboard the transport Venice Maru. He described the conditions as “very cramped and uncomfortable,” and noted that the temperature inside the ship reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Life inside the other transports was equally awful. There was little fresh water, and the crude wooden benjos (latrines) were up on the main deck, which also happened to be where the meals were cooked. Down below, everyone was tormented by hordes of flies.

The Japanese soldiers were no strangers to terrible conditions or harsh environments. Their rigorous training system, based on the principle of instant obedience achieved through strict discipline, had prepared them well. From the moment they began training as recruits, they were immersed in a culture of degradation and abuse, a rude awakening for people who had spent their entire lives learning group harmony. Not only were recruits cursed and shamed in front of their peers, they were also beaten regularly. Sometimes they were hit on the buttocks with wooden sticks, other times they were slapped, usually with an open hand but occasionally with the sole from a hobnailed shoe. Many instructors were sadistic, barely more than thugs, and they had tremendous latitude to punish recruits with methods calculated to break down every vestige of individuality. Frequently the entire class or platoon received the same punishment: If one suffered, all suffered.

One of the cruelest penalties was meted out during evening meals. Picked at random, recruits were ordered to recite by memory from the Gunjin Chokuyu [軍人勅諭 aka 'Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors'], “Emperor Meiji’s Instructions to the Men of the Fighting Services.” First issued in 1883, it exhorted warriors to carry out their duties with loyalty, propriety, valor, faithfulness, and simplicity. The wording was archaic, difficult to memorize, and if anyone made a mistake or forgot a passage, he was forbidden to eat. For recruits already bruised, exhausted, and ravenous from the day’s training, the denial of food was excruciating. After six months or more of such extreme conditioning, the recruits emerged as well-disciplined soldiers, their “bodies and minds tempered hard as steel.” The men of the South Seas Detachment were no different, and could tolerate anything that nature or the Imperial Army could throw at them.

WHEN THE INVASION FORCE REACHED THE EQUATOR AT 0500 ON JANUARY 20, the South Seas Detachment paused to commemorate a special event. In all of Japan’s 2,600-year history, they were the first army force to cross the line. Miyake later described the scene aboard his vessel: “On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. ‘At this time, when we are about to … advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,’ said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north.”

The South Seas Detachment [南海支隊 Nankai Shitai], under Imperial Japanese Navy command, was mostly drawn from Japan’s 55th Division, which was recruited primarily from Shikoku and played a key role in the Burma Campaign. The 55th Division’s home base and elite POW camp was Zentsūji. The POWs included about 200 Americans captured by the South Seas Detachment on Guam and Wake Island, a few dozen mostly British prisoners from Singapore, and 60 Australian officers from Rabaul. The Zentsūji POW camp was a Potemkin village to impress International Red Cross representatives with Japan’s humane treatment of its captives. Most of the rest of the men captured in the Rabaul Campaign died aboard the hell ship Montevideo Maru en route to Hainan Island, when it was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, on 1 July 1942. The loss of those 1050+ men was Australia’s single worst military disaster of World War II.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, Japan, labor, military, nationalism, Pacific, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Australia’s Thin “Northern Barrier” in 1941

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 668-680, 288-295:

To the military planners in Australia, the long string of islands comprising the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and the British-protected Solomons represented a sort of fence. Some in the War Cabinet even referred to it as the “Northern Barrier,” though the islands weren’t fortified until 1941. Lionel Wigmore, an esteemed Australian historian, more accurately described them as “a slender chain of forward observation posts.”

In the fall of 1939, an officer of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) set out to link the islands with a communications and intelligence network. Over a period of months, Lieutenant Commander Eric A. Feldt traveled “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” from New Guinea all the way to the New Hebrides, single-handedly enrolling dozens of plantation owners, traders, and assorted civilians into a loosely organized group known as the “coastwatchers.” All of them would perform a crucial role the coming war, many at the cost of their lives.

Simultaneously, detachments of a small militia organization, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), were established among the major islands. Representing the mandated territory’s only infantry force prior to 1941, the NGVR was authorized the day after Australia declared war on Germany, and many of the region’s able-bodied men were volunteers. Lieutenant Colonel John Walstab, the supervisor of police on New Britain, trained a unit of approximately eighty men who formed a rifle company, a machine gun squad, and a small headquarters unit.

Finally, in early 1941, the AIF decided to send most of the 8th Division to augment the defenses at Singapore, minus the 23rd Brigade, which would garrison three islands north of the mainland: Ambon, Timor, and New Britain. The War Cabinet grandiosely referred to the islands as the “Malay Barrier,” but each small landmass was separated by hundreds of miles of ocean.

The garrisons chosen to defend the islands received operational code names, though none sounded particularly inspiring. Sparrow Force, consisting of the 2/40th Infantry Battalion [= 2nd Battalion of 40th Regiment] plus an antiaircraft battery and troops of the Netherlands East Indies, would be sent to Timor, east of Java. Gull Force, with the 2/21st Infantry Battalion as its nucleus, would fortify Ambon, two hundred miles farther to the north. The last but strategically most important assignment, the defense of Rabaul, went to the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion and its attached units, known collectively as Lark Force.

1 Comment

Filed under Australia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, Southeast Asia, war

Japan’s Navy Guarded Australasia, 1917

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1901-1936:

At a time when the Wolf and the Seeadler were converging on the Pacific and seas around Australasia, neither Australia nor New Zealand had any adequate naval defence, the number of ships available being greatly diminished by war needs elsewhere in the world. In March 1917 the Australian Naval Board, which knew that, if the Australian fleet had not been in existence, then the Emden and any other raider could have attacked shipping out of Australasian ports with impunity. A report on the disposition of the fleet submitted to the Admiralty in London noted that in 1917 the Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were all serving in European waters, that the HMAS Psyche (which New Zealand had had in its waters in 1914 and had now returned to the Australians), the Fantome and three destroyers were attached to the British China Station. HMAS Encounter was stationed to protect shipping off southwestern Australia. Three other destroyers were stationed at, respectively, Jervis Bay, Twofold Bay and Bass Strait for patrols on the main shipping lane between Sydney and Melbourne.

The board noted that at times, due to ships either relieving with the China Station or undergoing refits, Australian waters had been left largely unprotected. It was known at this stage that some sort of raider was at work in the Indian Ocean and on 3 April 1917 the Encounter was ordered to New Zealand to escort a troop convoy to Fremantle, where it was augmented with Australian troopships, and on to Colombo. Australia had nothing larger than a destroyer left in its waters, and the Naval Board, clearly exasperated, cabled London for some help in safeguarding Australia’s coasts and shipping. Three days later the decision was made to send Japanese ships to Australia.

A number of Japanese ships had paid calls to Australian and New Guinean ports in the early years of the war escorting a number of troop convoys and patrolling the main Indian Ocean shipping lanes, particularly those out of Fremantle. As a result of these latest Australian requests, the light cruisers the Hirado and the Chikuma were assigned to protect Australia for most of the remainder of 1917. They spent some months operating out of Sydney and Jervis Bay, and separately visited Melbourne, Hobart, Townsville, Brisbane and, several New Zealand ports as well as patrolling northwards to the New Hebrides, New Guinea and Fiji. Three other Japanese ships made occasional sweeps down the coast of Western Australia during 1917, giving many Australians the lasting impression Japan was solely responsible for guarding the Pacific Ocean and for escorting Australian troops safely across the Indian Ocean. The official history of Australia’s naval role in the Great War later argued that it was misleading to believe Allied naval defence in the Pacific was solely a Japanese concern, but without the vessels from Britain’s Asian ally there would have been no meaningful defence at sea for Australia and New Zealand during much of 1917. Not that their presence was particularly reassuring, especially for the New Zealanders.

The legacy of the ‘Yellow Peril’ fears, which raged in both Dominions at the end of the nineteenth century, was still strong in the minds of many people. New Zealand’s government firmly believed that, while the Germans posed a present and clear danger, ultimately the British Dominions would face peril from Japan. The alacrity with which the Tokyo government had occupied German islands in the mid-Pacific had not been lost on Wellington. Across the Tasman similar fears were held by the Federal government in Melbourne, and both countries were uneasy about a British undertaking to support Japan’s continued occupation of the Marshall and other islands of German Micronesia. In 1918 Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes asked New Zealand’s William Massey to help him oppose the move when it came to a peace conference, but the New Zealand Prime Minister was much more concerned with advancing his own country’s claim to Western Samoa when the time came. New Zealand’s own defences at sea were practically nonexistent after 1915.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, Germany, Japan, military, nationalism, New Zealand, Pacific, war

Outfitting the Sea Devil’s Sea Eagle, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2632-2681:

The raider captain, Count Felix von Luckner — the ‘Sea Devil’ as he would come to be known — was not the sort of man who would lie. His every act was dictated by the conventions of seamanlike chivalry. His early training and experience on sailing vessels surpassed that of most other German naval officers so, although he lacked the seniority in 1916 to rate a command of his own, he was the obvious choice when the Imperial German Navy decided to commission a sailing ship as a commerce raider. He had begun his sea-going career as a fo’c’sle hand, then passed the examination for an officer’s ticket in the merchant marine and finally joined the navy. As noted earlier, the navy was very much the second choice for a military career in Germany. But it was ideal for those who could not stomach the demands of life in the Prussian-dominated army officer corps. Germany had possessed a national navy only since the Empire was founded in 1871, and it had relatively little tradition. It was the darling of the middle classes of the new Germany; not of the Junkers of East Prussia.

Von Luckner’s early rumbustious life at sea certainly would have knocked any pomposity out of the young von Luckner, and he was just thirty-four when given command of the Seeadler. His career in the navy since 1910 had included service aboard the cruiser Panther sent to German Cameroons in West Africa, the battleship Kronprinz during the Battle of Jutland and as gunnery officer on the first voyage of the commerce raider the Moewe. He was a popular officer, and was well liked by his men when he took command of the Seeadler. Those who were captured by him all spoke well of von Luckner.

The choice of a sailing ship for raider operations was an inspired one. It solved the one major headache now that all the German colonies had been lost and the etappen [coaling stations] no longer existed. A sailing ship required no coal nor would it look out of place. There were still plenty of sailing ships on the high seas (the huge square-rigged, four-masted barques would be used in the South Australia wheat trade until 1939).

The ship chosen was the Pass of Balmaha. She had been captured by a U-boat in 1915, an American ship carrying cotton from New York to Archangel in what was then still Tsarist Russia. The ship had been owned originally by the River Plate Shipping Company and was built in 1878 by Duncan and Company of Scotland. The Pass of Balmaha weighed 1,602 tons gross, she was eighty-three metres long and had a draught of 5.5 metres.

Von Luckner knew that he could not rely on sail alone. While sails released him from complete dependence on coal, the wind was not reliable enough. The raider would have to be able to maintain complete and total manoeuvrability so she could make her escape if she encountered an enemy naval ship. The answer was to install a diesel engine, a type of propulsion not yet considered sufficiently reliable on its own but certainly adequate in an auxiliary role.

For weeks workmen had toiled aboard the ship reshaping everything except for the hull and the masts. In addition to the engines, room had to be found for the fuel tanks and for large water tanks which would provide not only for extended duration at sea but for the many prisoners the Germans intended to capture. Access to the engine room — as one of the holds had now become — was by means of a door at the back of a cupboard. The Germans realised that there was every chance that they would be stopped and inspected by the British and the discovery of an engine aboard a sailing ship would arouse great suspicion, but the door to it was not easily spotted. Apart from accommodating a diesel engine, the space below decks was fitted out with hammocks for captured crews, and three-bunk cabins for their officers; these cabins had stocks of French and English books with which the prisoners would while away the long days and nights of captivity. Below decks would also serve, during the run through the British blockade, as a hiding place for part of the crew, should the ship be stopped and searched because the British would never believe that a cargo carrying clipper needed a crew of sixty-five men. One thing that would make an inspection by the Royal Navy of the area below deck impossible, or at least impracticable, was to load the deck with timber; it was common for lumber ships to have a cargo of logs or planks piled over the hatch covers. The vessel’s ordnance (two 105-millimetre guns and 400 rounds of ammunition, plus small arms) were also stowed below.

While the Pass of Balmaha was undergoing the radical changes needed to fit her out as a raider she was temporarily named the Walter, the explanation being given to any curious German that she was being equipped as a cadet-training ship, which provided a plausible reason for the huge number of bunks and hammocks being installed, not to mention the engine.

Once at sea, the ship would have to adopt that status of a neutral. Von Luckner’s first choice was to impersonate a Norwegian clipper named Maletta which bore an uncanny resemblance to his own ship. Unfortunately, the Maletta was also in northern waters at about the time during which von Luckner was due to sail, so that prevented him using her name. Instead an entirely fictitious name, Irma, was bestowed for the purposes of fooling the British should the vessel be stopped and searched. Several members of the crew had been chosen because they could speak Norwegian. As far as the German Navy records were concerned their new sailing ship was called the SeeadlerSea Eagle — an identity she would assume once past the blockade.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, energy, Germany, military, Scandinavia, war

Disguising the German Raider Seeadler, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2685-2702:

The initial disguise required more than superficial considerations such as painting a false name on the stern and providing a matching ship’s log to support the ruse. Timber, complete with Norwegian markings, was loaded, and papers forged to show that the vessel was carrying its cargo from Copenhagen to Melbourne. All the deck machinery and all the instruments, including the barometers and the compasses, were stamped with the names of Norwegian companies. The crew’s quarters were decorated with Norwegian scenes and Norwegian papers were left lying about. Norwegian and Danish food was used to stock the galley and Norwegian clothing had been bought for the crew.

Not all the men had to be part of the facade. Those whose role it was to hide below deck if the ship was stopped needed to play no active part in the disguise. The Germans had carefully selected twenty-three sailors who could speak Norwegian and these were the men who would be seen by any British force that came aboard. Each of the men, along with four officers (the total of twenty-seven being the typically sized crew for a vessel such as this) was given a Norwegian name and birthplace and was ordered to study as much as possible about the particular town so that he could answer any reasonable questions about the place. They would not be likely to fool a Norwegian, but then it would not be the Norwegians who would be stopping the Seeadler.

The deception became even more detailed. Letters were written in Norwegian so that each man’s locker contained correspondence from ‘home’ and photographs of loved ones were stamped on the back with the names of photographers in the towns whence they were supposed to come. The men were repeatedly quizzed and tested to make certain there were no mistakes, omissions or inconsistencies in their stories. If he gave the wrong age for a child or the incorrect occupation for his father, a crewman would be punished. Von Luckner knew that British patrols in the North Sea were being constantly stiffened. If a Royal Navy officer walked into the mess area his suspicions had to be immediately allayed by the piles of Norwegian books and records and by the photos of the Norwegian king. As a final touch one of the youngest of the sailors was issued with women’s clothes so that he could play the part of the captain’s wife.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, military, Scandinavia, war