First to fight
At the battle of Bitapaka, the ANMEF were the first Australians in combat.
The two scouts pushed into the thick jungle and moved a short way inland almost parallel to the road they had just left. Minutes later, as they neared a clearing, they saw ahead a trench, carefully positioned across the road ahead and on a blind corner. The trench was manned by up to 20 New Guineans and three Germans who were waiting in ambush. The lead scout raised his rifle and fired.
At the start of the First World War, Australia faced the threat of German naval power operating on its doorstep. From 1884, Germany had successfully annexed territories in New Guinea and surrounding islands such as New Britain; bought the Pelew, Marshall and Caroline Islands; and wrested the port of Tsingtao from China. A series of powerful wireless and telegraph stations were built and coaling facilities established between Tsingtao and Rabaul on New Britain. This gave freedom of movement to German shipping and the ability to communicate rapidly over vast distances. By 1914, the German East Asia Squadron, which included heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gniesenau and the light cruiser Emden, were operating out of Tsingtao. The Germans also had a flourishing trade network in the region, which posed a serious threat to British interests.
With Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August, the Australian government was asked to raise a force of 20,000 men to defend the Empire, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). A second force was to be raised and deployed with haste to seize German New Guinea and surrounding territories, and destroy the wireless stations there. This force, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF), would consist of an infantry battalion, a naval brigade of 500 men, two machine-gun sections, a signals section and a medical section. This had to be done urgently. The naval brigade would be raised in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, and the rest in Sydney.
On 10 August renowned Boer War veteran and citizen soldier Colonel William Holmes DSO accepted the offer to raise and command the ANMEF. He appointed his staff that day, including his son Lieutenant Basil Holmes as aide de camp, and his son-in-law Captain Reginald Travers as intelligence officer. One of the officers appointed to the medical section was Captain Brian Pockley. A gifted student and sportsman, he had qualified as a surgeon only six months before the outbreak of war.
Very few of the men recruited had any previous military experience – so they had no uniforms, equipment or weapons. In a feat of organisational and logistical brilliance, Holmes and his staff sourced everything needd, and over the next three days the men of the ANMEF were issued with their uniforms, equipment and weapons.
In a feat rivalling Holmes’ own, the Naval Office activated men of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. One of these men was the 29-year-old Able Seaman (AB) William “Billy” Williams, of Northcote, Victoria. Command of the naval brigade was given to Commander Joseph Beresford. Some retired sailors were recalled to service and other men, such as Angus Worthington of Adelaide, were recruited directly off the street. Those from the other states were hurriedly sent by train to Sydney. Many arrived on the morning of 18 August and went to Cockatoo Island, where the transport ship Berrima awaited.
The SS Berrima had called into military service on 12 August. Given the title HMAS, she was employed as an “armed merchantman”, and as she was neither armed nor had room for 1,500 men, she was hurriedly taken to the dry dock facility at Cockatoo Island for a rapid fit-out. Protection for the transport would be provided by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), led by Rear Admiral George Patey, the commander of the Australian fleet, from his flagship, HMAS Australia. Almost the entire might of the RAN would be thrown behind the venture, as the German cruiser squadron was thought at that time to be operating around Rabaul.
On 18 August, only 7 days after the raising of the ANMEF, the force was ready to sail. Berrima was still in dry dock for the installation of the last of the ship’s new fittings. Meanwhile, Colonel Holmes was meeting Defence Minister Edward Millen in his office at Customs House, Circular Quay. Holmes thought he was going to be told what the purpose of the force was, and was expecting praise for raising and readying the ANMEF to sail within a week. Instead, Millen berated him for the time it had taken to raise the force, and almost in tears went on to complain, “I hear you have taken on a lot of married men.” Holmes responded “Well, sir, we took on the men who volunteered to come; we didn’t ask if they were married or not.”
At 5 pm, Berrima was refloated and the men embarked. Sealed mission orders were ferried to Berrima the following day. After leaving Sydney Heads, the ship turned north, leading many to suspect that their destination was German New Guinea. In the early hours of 24 August, Berrima met HMAS Encounter off Palm Island, not far from Townsville. Admiral Patey ordered Berrima to wait, as HMAS Australia had been called to lead the naval screen for the New Zealand operation to take Samoa, and the whereabouts of the German East Asia Squadron was still unknown.
The halt at Palm Island was fortunate for the men of the ANMEF. Troops rowed ashore every day, allowing them to practise landing procedures. Field exercises were conducted in the jungle areas, which stood the force in good stead for their impending operation. Ranges were set up for musketry training. The force spent a little over a week at Palm Island. During that time, Berrima was joined by the stores ship Aorangi and HMAS Sydney. After Samoa and Nauru were seized from Germany, Patey authorised Berrima and her escort vessels to go from Palm Island to Port Moresby, later to rendezvous with Australia off Rossel Island, the easternmost island off the tip of New Guinea. As the force sailed for New Guinea, they were joined by the submarines AE1 and AE2 and their support vessels. The men from the naval brigade who had been selected to undertake the initial landings on New Britain were transferred from Berrima to HMAS Sydney before leaving Palm Island. With them went Captain Pockley, who found the lodgings, food and companionship far more to his liking than the cramped quarters of Berrima.
Waiting for the convoy in Port Moresby harbour were HMA Ships Warrego and Yarra and a requisitioned civilian liner, Kanowna. Aboard it were 500 volunteers from Queensland’s Kennedy Regiment. During the brief halt, Colonel Holmes inspected the men on board Kanowna and was unimpressed with their physical condition and their lack of training, equipment and stores. He wanted the Queenslanders returned to Australia, but Admiral Patey thought the men could be used for garrison duties.
The convoy was soon underway again, but shortly after leaving Port Moresby harbour, Kanowna’s stokers mutinied. They had not volunteered for active duty and were unhappy with conditions on board, such as a lack of fresh water; this put paid to any further involvement in the campaign by the Queenslanders. The ship was ordered home, and the men were discharged. (Many of them, stung by returning home under such circumstances, volunteered immediately to join the AIF. One was Captain Hugh Quinn, who as a Major in the 15th Battalion, would be killed the following May on Gallipoli and have the post where he fell named after him.) The rest of the voyage was without mishap, and after joining HMAS Australia off Rossel Island, the force steamed for Rabaul.
In the early hours of 11 September, the force arrived off Kabakaul Bay, about 80 kilometres east of Rabaul. At 7 am Lieutenant Bowen and a landing party of 24 men, including AB Billy Williams, were rowed to the breakwater pier at Kabakaul, with orders to destroy the radio tower at Bitapaka, 30 kilometres inland. Captain Pockley, who accompanied Bowen’s men, had written in a letter to his parents the previous evening, “personally I think it will be a pleasant little picnic.”
The landing was unopposed and Bowen ordered his men to advance along the Bitapaka–Kabakaul Road. In places, small groups of men were able to enter the thick jungle to scout ahead. At about 9 am during one of these forays, Petty Officer Palmer and AB Eastman noticed New Guinean troops, supervised by three German soldiers, dug in on the road ahead, waiting to ambush the Australians. Palmer immediately opened fire, wounding one of the Germans in the right hand. In the following exchange of fire, several New Guinean troops were killed and the others, including the wounded German, were taken prisoner.
The wounded German, Sergeant Major Mauderer, was made to walk ahead of the Australians, shouting for his comrades to surrender. Two German officers and a New Guinean guide, all fully armed, ran onto the road, realised their error, and tried to escape. Facing a large party of armed Australians, they surrendered. One of the captured officers, Captain Hans Wuchert, was garrison commander at Bitapaka; the other officer Lieutenant Mayer commanded a nearby outpost at Herbertshöhe. Both men had vital maps in their possession. Pockley pointed out to Bowen the severity of Mauderer’s wound; without treatment, he would die. The German extended his arm and bit down on a cigar as Pockley performed a field amputation of his shattered hand. Witnesses said later that Mauderer’s “face did not betray for one second the pain he endured.” After the operation, Bowen detailed one of his men to take the four prisoners to the beach and signal the ships for reinforcements.
Before heading for Bitapaka, and with more opposition likely, Bowen left several men behind, including AB Williams and Stoker William Kember, to ferry messages and direct reinforcements as they arrived. Williams noticed several New Guineans in a plantation just off the road and called Stoker Kember to investigate. Kember saw nothing to arouse suspicion and returned to his comrades. As Williams started to move down the road, a shot rang out from the trees. The round entered the right side of his chest, exiting on the left side. Kember picked up his stricken comrade and carried him almost half a mile towards the beach.
Hearing of Williams’s wounding, Captain Pockley set off to find him. With New Guinean troops infiltrating behind their position, Bowen detailed AB Annear to escort the doctor. When Pockley found Williams, he saw the wound was mortal and told Kember to carry Williams back to the beach. In an act selflessness, Pockley removed his Red Cross brassard and tied it to Kember’s hat in an attempt to give him safe passage. Kember and another man then carried Williams back to a staging area.
Pockley and Annear moved to rejoin Bowen’s party but came under fire from marksmen hidden in the trees. The men took cover behind a log. Despite warnings, Pockley stood up and walked along the road towards Bowen’s position. Annear heard the sickening thud as Pockley was shot. He rushed to the doctor’s aid and found he had been shot through the stomach, the high velocity rifle round punching a hole out through his back, shattering several vertebrae. Pockley and Williams were taken by cart to the beach and transferred to Berrima. Pockley died a little before 2 pm that afternoon and Williams died soon after.
At 10 am, Lieutenant Hill and 50 men reached Bowen. They advanced nearly 500 metres under constant fire from enemy troops hidden in the trees, before coming under fire from a well-sited and heavily defended trench dug across the road. After a hurried conference, Bowen and Hill decided to outflank the trench. As Bowen began his advance, he was shot in the head. The round pierced his helmet and cut a furrow along the side of his skull. Hill thought Bowen had been killed, until he reached his position and found him dazed and bleeding. Hill moved Bowen to safety and took command. The fire from the trench was so heavy that the Australian advance was held up. Bowen was later evacuated to Berrima and survived his wound.
Reinforcements from Berrima began landing at Kabakaul at around 10 am. No. 3 Company of the naval brigade, with Lieutenant Commander Elwell, landed first; soon after came Commander Beresford, Lieutenant Bond and No. 6 Company; then Captain Travers, a machine-gun section, and more men of the medical section landed. Elwell took command of No. 3 Company and led the men along Bitapaka Road towards the fighting, with scouts sent out on both sides of the road. About 40 minutes later, as one of the scouting parties came under fire near a bend in the road, AB John Courtney was shot and killed. He was the first Australian serving in an Australian force to be killed during the First World War. As the advance continued, wires leading to a mine dug-in under the road were discovered. As there was no detonator, the device was left and the men moved on, again coming under fire. Two more sailors were wounded and one, AB Robert Moffat, died the following day from his wounds.
It was approximately 1 pm when Elwell and his men reached Hill’s position. After conferring with Hill, Elwell took his men to the right to outflank the German trench. He had had a premonition of his death the day before. When he was 80 metres from the trench, he ordered his men to fix bayonets, drew his sword and led a charge on the position. As he ran forward, he was shot through the heart and killed instantly. The weight of fire forced the attacking sailors to take cover.
The German officer in charge of the trench, knowing he was outnumbered and further resistance was useless, surrendered the position soon after. Eight Germans and about 20 New Guineans were taken prisoner. The German officer did not believe the dishevelled Hill was in command, so Hill marched him and a translator down the road to find Commander Beresford leading further reinforcements. After a lengthy discussion, Beresford ordered Bond and his men forward with the German officer and his interpreter to convince the remaining enemy troops to surrender.
Lieutenant Bond and Captain Travers led No. 6 Company forward, with the German officer and his translator to the fore, calling on the troops ahead to surrender, which the remaining six Germans and 20 New Guineans did. A further three kilometres up the road, another trench, this one guarded by three Germans and up to 35 New Guineans, was encountered. After several desultory shots, this position was quickly surrendered to the Australians.
These men were quickly disarmed and under guard were ordered back to the beach. As the men moved off, one of the New Guineans left the ranks and began pointing at the bushes to one side of the road. AB Worthington noticed a metal glint in the trees; as his diary relates, “Before I could give warning firing started in the bush to my left and behind me.” The Australians returned fire and the German and New Guinean prisoners made a break. Only one of the German prisoners remained where he was. One man was wounded and the translator, trying to exhort the New Guineans to fight, was killed by Bond. Worthington continues: “I turned to the prisoners. They were dropping like rabbits in endeavours to escape, but none got away. The incident took us quite by surprise, as we were not expecting any trouble, but we nevertheless gave a good account of ourselves.” Many of the New Guineans were killed. The Australians suffered a further three men wounded, and AB Harry Street, suffering grievous wounds to his back and leg, died before he could be carried back for treatment.
Bond, Travers and the majority of the company then continued their advance until they came to a barracks only a kilometre from the wireless station. Here eight Germans and 20 New Guineans refused to surrender. Bond, in a feat of daring, handed his pistol to Travers, who provided cover as Bond walked towards the Germans, keeping them between himself and the New Guinean troops. As the Germans were conferring, the unarmed Bond managed to disarm them all, pulling pistols from holsters. The New Guineans, unable to bring their weapons to bear were forced to surrender. For this action, Bond would be awarded a Distinguished Service Order.
The fighting was over and the radio station occupied by 7 pm. The ANMEF had suffered six men killed or died of wounds and four wounded. The Germans suffered one killed and one wounded and the New Guineans, 30 killed and 11 wounded. Surviving prisoners were locked up, and the German reservists were secured on the second floor of the radio station building, with the New Guinean troops in a nearby outbuilding.
Berrima steamed to Rabaul that night and troops were landed there the following morning. The Imperial German flag was hauled down and replaced with the Union Jack. Following a five-day siege of the inland town of Toma, the German governor, Eduard Haber, formally surrendered on 17 September. This handing over of power would create a new set of issues for Holmes and his force.
Michael Kelly is an historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue (No. 67) of the Memorial’s magazine, Wartime. Purchase a copy or subscription to Wartime.