The Battle of Bitapaka

German New Guinea at the outbreak of war


By 1914, German New Guinea had 1273 Europeans. Colonial authorities had feared the indigenous population would die out, and Asians were brought in to replace them as workers. Chinese indentured workers outnumbered Europeans with 1700 people. Pay was five marks a month and contracts ran for three years. New Guinean workers numbered approximately 18,000. They were coerced into labour by the imposition of a 10-mark head tax. To earn cash, they had to perform some work for Germans. [From Robert W. Kirk Paradise Past: The Transformation of the South Pacific, 1520–1920, ‪McFarland 2012, available as an e-book from Google Books].

In a war setting, the German presence in the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain increased in significance because of its use of Rabaul as a coaling station for the German Navy as well as what were believed to be several telegraph stations critical to maintaining communications across the fleet and globally for Germany.

Germany's reliance on telegraphic communication became a strategic target for the Triple Entente powers including Britain well before the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany on 4 August 1914. For instance, the Kaiser is now known to have been indignant about the cutting of German undersea cable in the North Sea by British dragnet on 1 August 1914, before the declaration of war. [Hamm p. 351]. Compounding the importance of Rabaul as a strategic target for Britain and its Commonwealth dominions was a long-standing anxiety by Australia to wrestle control or possession of the islands that surrounded it from anyone other than Australia or New Zealand.

Hermann Hiery in his general history of the war in the South Pacific [The Neglected War - The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I, Univ. of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1668-4. Available on Google Books as EBook for about $12], describes the garrison allocated to the defence of the German New Guinea as under-resourced and makeshift.

The outbreak of war in Europe came as a great shock to Germany's totally unprepared possessions in the Pacific...

When the war broke out, the acting governor of New Guinea was on a tour of inspection.. On his return, the call-up of German men began. Anybody who was more or less capable of marching is put into some sort of uniform and hastily given basic military training. It soon became apparent, however, that the colonialists who are unaccustomed to this sort of activity, had no stamina and that in the event of a military confrontation they would do more harm than good. All hopes were now pinned on a few officers of the reserve in the administration and the Melanesian police-soldiers. The majority of these, however, had been deployed in the interior of New Guinea as an escort for those surveying the border between German New Guinea and Australian Papua, and they could not get back quickly enough. Of those left in Rabaul, there were hardly 50 men who had served more than six months. None of them had ever faced an enemy with firearms. Their ranks were hastily filled with plantation workers. The only weapons available were 280 extended 1898 Mauser Carbines. Two cannon were only for firing salutes, and there was no live ammunition. There were no machine guns or other automatic weapons.... [pp. 12-15].

MacKenzie is the author of the official war history covering the conflict in New Guinea. [Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918
Volume X – The Australians at Rabaul. The Capture and Administration of the German Possessions in the Southern Pacific (10th edition, 1941): Mackenzie, Seaforth Simpson. Available at the AWM web site]

MacKenzie summarised the German Protectorate’s military position at the outbreak of war as follows:

When all available reservists in New Britain and New Ireland had reported for service, the armed force of the Protectorate consisted of 2 officers on the active list of the German Army, 7 Landndzr officers, 52 white non-commissioned officers and men, and about 240 native soldiers. The two regular officers were Captain of Cavalry (Rittmeister) von Klewitz, to whom was given the command of the troops, and Senior Lieutenant Mayer, who had been in command of the native expeditionary force.

The other officers, noncommissioned officers, and men belonged to the reserve—Landwehr and Landsturm—of the German Army, and were in their daily life officials, planters, merchants, sailors, or settlers; some had received no training for a long time; twelve were reservists (that is, "deferred" trainees who had had no military training at all). All, however, were either accustomed or temperamentally amenable to discipline; all were acclimatised; most were familiar with the kind of country in which they would be called upon to fight. Among the native troops were a number in their second or third years of training.

In physique and morale the expeditionary corps did not represent the best types of Protectorate native, since drafts were made from the native police on the outstations, and the district officers naturally kept for their own police the men of the finer physique and higher intelligence, and sent only men of inferior quality to Herbertshohe. Both von Klewitz and Mayer doubted whether much dependence could be placed upon the expeditionary force under fire; the original plan of maintaining a separate company of white soldiers was therefore abandoned, and these were divided among the other sections to stiffen the native troops. The dispositions made to meet attack were as follows: The wireless station at Bitapaka was occupied by 8 white and 60 native soldiers under the command of Capt Wuchert. This force was intended, in the case of a hostile landing, to meet the attack at some point near the coast. If the pressure became too strong, the section had orders to retire fighting on Bitapaka and, after demolishing the station, to withdraw to Tobera. In no circumstances was the wireless station to be allowed to fall into the enemy’s hands in a serviceable condition.

A company of 10 white and 140 native soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Mayer, was stationed at Herbertshohe. This company was ordered, in case of a hostile landing, to retire some distance from Herbertshohe, and await information about the enemy’s advance. It was then to follow him, and fall on his flanks or rear. A section stationed at Paparatava near Toma on the Herbertshohe-Toma road, and another section stationed at Takubar on the same road nearer the coast, were allotted to protect the Government. At Vunadidir, north-west of Toma, an observation-post of eight white soldiers was established; at Raluana on the coast (about five miles north-west from Herbertshohe), there was an observation and outpost station of two white and six native soldiers. There was also a small post at Tobera, half-way between Toma and Bitapaka. Slight changes in the strength of the forces occupying the various positions were made from time to time.

The coast from St George’s Channel to Rabaul was continuously and closely observed. Thus the approach of the Australian Squadron on 12 August was promptly reported and, in anticipation of a landing, the company stationed at Herbertshohe had moved towards Kabakaul, the section at Paparatava had been strengthened and pushed forward on the Toma road, and the guard at Toma had been rcinforced. On that occasion, however, only two small parties landed, and returned to their ships without coming into contact with the troops. After the Australians had sailed away the formerpositions were reoccupied, and training  was resumed. The native soldiers received regular instruction in musketry and manoeuvres, and the troops took part in field-service manoeuvres once a week. [pp. 48-49]