Topic: BatzNG - Bitapaka
The Battle of Bitapaka
New Guinea, 11 September 1914
Bitapaka, the only significant action arising from the Australian seizure of German New Guinea at the start of the First World War, was fought on 11 September 1914 south of Kabakaul on the north-east coastline of the Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain. At dawn that day a joint army-navy contingent (the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force, or AN&MEF) arrived off Rabaul in ships of the Australian fleet commanded by Rear-Admiral George Patey, to demand the German colony's surrender. Meanwhile, a 25-man party of naval reservists (with about fifteen others who were to provide medical support and maintain communications) was landed at Kabakaul with orders to capture a radio station believed to be in operation at Bitapaka, seven kilometres to the south.
At about 9 a.m., as the Australians pushed inland following a jungle-edged road, two scouts surprised an enemy party of about twenty Melanesian soldiers led by three Germans apparently setting an ambush. They opened fire, wounding one of the Germans and scattering the rest. In addition to the wounded man who surrendered, the other two Germans were soon afterwards captured (one of whom turned out to be the captain commanding the Bitapaka section of the German forces). Reinforcements were called up from the beach at the same time as the advance was resumed. The Australians had only gone some 500 metres when they came under fire from a strongly held trench dug across the road. Joined here by about 50 more men from the ships, a flanking attack was launched under Lieut.-Commander Charles Elwell shortly after 1 p.m. which caused a white flag to be raised by the trench's defenders and terms of surrender requested. To this point the Australians had suffered Elwell and three men killed, and five others wounded (two fatally).
Accompanied by two Germans from the captured trench to serve as interpreters, the Australians proceeded along the road carrying a flag of truce. The Germans persuaded the garrisons of three more trench obstacles to surrender also-though not before a brisk skirmish took place at the last of these in which three Australians were wounded (one fatally) and one of the interpreters and several Melanesian soldiers killed. Another group of German-led Melanesians was encountered and disarmed before the radio station was reached about 7 p.m. This was found to have been abandoned, the mast dropped but its instruments and machinery intact. The No. 2 trench (3 Germans. 20 Natives) AN&MEF personnel killed during the day's fighting were the first Australians to fall in the First World War.
Although successful, the operation could scarcely be rated as well managed. The Australian advance had been effectively delayed by a half-trained force of native police, and plantation labourers, and this opposition had been overcome only at a cost of seven officers and men killed or died of wounds and five wounded; some Germans present later claimed that two of the Australian fatalities had been shot by their own side in the confused engagement. Against this, Bitapaka's defenders had suffered one German NCO and about 30 Melanesians killed, and one German and ten Melanesians wounded. It has been claimed that the heavy losses among the Melanesian troops were the result of the Australian practice of bayoneting all those that fell into their hands during the fighting.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 96-97.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
S.S. Mackenzie, (1927), The Australians at Rabaul, Sydney: Angus & Robertson;
Hermann Joseph Him, (1995), The Neglected War, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Citation: The Battle of Bitapaka, New Guinea, 11 September 1914, Outline