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The Capture of German New Guinea 15 September 1914

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 by a Federation of the six self governing British colonies of Australia. Five of them had maintained naval forces, which were amalgamated into the Commonwealth Naval Forces on 1 March 1901. It was granted the title of Royal Australian Navy on 10 July 1911.

In August 1914 the RAN consisted of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers HMAS Pioneer, Encounter, Melbourne and Sydney, the destroyers HMAS Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra and the submarines HMAS AE1 and AE2. All were modern ships built for the RAN in British yards to British designs, except for Encounter and Pioneer, old light cruisers transferred from the Royal Navy in 1912.

Warrego was built in Britain but then dismantled and the parts sent to Australia so that Australian shipyard workers could reassemble her and obtain expertise in warship construction. In August 1914 a light cruiser, HMAS Brisbane, and three destroyers, HMAS Huon, Swan and Torrens, were under construction in Australia.

Another old British cruiser, HMS Psyche, was in New Zealand waters. The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand was paid for by New Zealand taxpayers, but was part of the RN and was based in the UK in 1914.

At the outbreak of war the RAN was put under the control of the British Admiralty. Its initial missions were to capture German South Pacific colonies and to protect shipping against the German East Asia Squadron. The higher positions were held by British officers, as it would take time until Australians were ready to hold them. Rear Admiral Sir George Patey RN commanded the Australian Fleet.

The first British Empire shot of the First World War was fired by an Australian coastal defence battery. At 12:45 pm on 5 August 1914, Sergeant John Purdue of the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery fired a warning shot across the bows of SS Pfalz, a German merchant ship attempting to leave Melbourne harbour.

A significant Australian contribution to the war at sea came on 11 August when the German merchant ship SS Hobart was boarded and her code books seized, although they did not reach the Admiralty in London until October.

On 6 August the British Government sent the Australian Government the following telegram:

If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Yap in Marshall Islands, Nauru, Pleasant Island and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement at conclusion of the war. Other Dominions are acting in similar way on the same understanding, in particular, suggestion is being made to New Zealand in regard to Samoa.[1]

Arthur Jose writes in the Official History of the RAN in WWI that many Australians were puzzled to be told to use their navy not to defeat the enemy fleet, but to capture territory, ‘exactly the purpose against which all their previous advisers had warned them.’[2]

The main threat came from the German East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and three light cruisers. The armoured cruisers were greatly inferior to HMAS Australia but superior to any other Australian warship. Their location was unknown.

An initial plan to seize German wireless stations expanded into one to take territory. This would deny the German cruisers possible bases. However, Jose suggests that this plan was devised in London, where some, expecting a short war, wanted to ‘have in hand some German territory for bargaining purposes, possibly to exchange for Belgium.’[3] On the other hand, Hew Strachan notes that ‘[b]oth Australia and New Zealand harboured their own imperialist ambitions’ and accuses Jose of ‘glossing over [the] sub-imperialist thrust’ of their actions.[4]

The RAN covered the move of a New Zealand force to Samoa, which was taken without a fight on 30 August.

It then, accompanied by the French cruiser Montcalm, escorted the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, comprising 1,000 Australian  infantry and 500 Australian and British naval reservists and commanded by Colonel William Holmes, to capture German colonies in New Guinea. Melbourne was despatched to destroy the German wireless station at Nauru.

The main force reached Rabaul on 11 September. Sydney put a 25 man naval landing party ashore at Herbertshöhe, now Kokopo, and Warrego and Yarra landed a similar force at Kabakaul They were ordered to find the wireless stations. Patey thought that there were two, one, inland from each landing point.  In fact, both were at Bita Paka. The Herbertshöhe party was therefore unable to find its objective. The Kabakaul one was fired on as it advanced.

Two companies of naval reservists and two machine gun sections were landed from HMAS Berrima, an armed transport. They encountered a force of about 150 local police commanded by German officers and were reinforced by four companies of infantry from Berrima. Progress in the Battle of Bita Paka was slow, but the Germans retreated after the destroying the radio mast. The attackers removed the rest of the radio equipment.

Australian casualties were two officers and four men killed and an officer and three men wounded. Able Seaman W. G. V. Williams became the first Australian to be killed in action during the war.

The Official British Naval History says that ‘[f]or the Germans further resistance was now hopeless, but the Governor…[was] bent on making negotiations as dilatory as possible.[5] On the morning of 14 September Encounter bombarded a German fortified position on a ridge. Australian troops advancing towards it in the afternoon were met by a flag of truce. The German governor surrendered German New Guinea on 15 September.

On 14 September AE1 disappeared on patrol off Rabaul with the loss of all 35 men on board, a mixture of RAN and RN personnel. She probably struck a reef or other submerged object and was the first RAN warship to be lost and the first British Empire submarine to be lost in the war. Her wreck has not been found but efforts to do so continue.

[1] Quoted in A. W. Jose, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol. ix, the Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918, Ninth ed. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 47.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). p. 464 and footnote 44 on p. 465.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 285.

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2013 in review

Thanks and happy New Year to all readers and contributors.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.

Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.

Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.

By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;

The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.

Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.

Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.

Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.

The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.

Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.

A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’

The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.

Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.

The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.

This account of the sinking of Peterel  is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII

Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.

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Living History — Foul Weather Mars Tall Ship Sail Past

Martin Gibson:

Very interesting blog, especially the pictures of sailing ships,

Originally posted on Military History Now:

The USS Niagara under sail off Cleveland, Ohio in 2010. The vessel was in Hamilton Bay, Canada yesterday under somewhat less ideal weather conditions.

A fleet of five tall ships dropped anchor in the harbour off Hamilton, Canada late this week as part of the city’s ongoing War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations. The collection of three brigantines, one barquentine and a three-master was led by the USS Niagara — a reproduction of the famous vessel Oliver Hazard Perry commanded during the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. The ships, which will spend the weekend on Hamilton’s waterfront, are open to the pubic for tours. Area residents flocked to the edge of Hamilton Bay on Friday to watch the five vessels take part in a sail past. MilitaryHistoryNow.com was there to take in the sight, but inclement weather kept the ships far out of range of our zoom lens. We did…

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Welcome to the War and Security Blog

The War and Security Blog will mostly be about the history of warfare, but I will also comment on current national security issues. As I’m British, the focus will be mostly, but not exclusively, on the UK.

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